WASHINGTON (CN) – Civil rights groups claim the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s decision to delay mandated changes to the housing voucher program will unlawfully limit housing options available to low-income families who rely on the program.
OCA is joined in the complaint by Hartford, Conn., resident Crystal Carter and Chicagoan Tiara Moore. They are represented by lead attorney Sasha Samberg-Champion with D.C. firm Relman Dane & Colfax, and by attorneys with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and other civil rights groups.
The federal government’s Housing Choice Voucher, or HCV, program – formerly known as the Section 8 program – subsidizes the housing costs of more than 2 million low-income American households.
The current formula for housing vouchers is calculated on rents over an entire metropolitan area without considering differences in housing costs from neighborhood to neighborhood.
Using this formula, the value of a housing voucher is often too low for families to move to better neighborhoods, reinforcing residential poverty, according to OCA’s lawsuit.
Because voucher users are disproportionately black and Latino, policies that limit voucher use primarily to low-income neighborhoods also allegedly increase racial segregation.
HUD’s new fair-market rent, or FMR, rule aims to cure this problem by changing how housing voucher amounts are calculated.
The rule was set to take effect Jan. 1, 2018, but the agency delayed its mandatory implementation for two years.
“Ms. Carter and Ms. Moore are African-American women who want to use their HCV vouchers to move their families from poor areas of Hartford and Chicago, respectively, to the higher-rent (and predominantly white) suburbs outside those cities,” the lawsuit states. “They have been stymied from doing so by voucher rates too low to secure housing where they want to live.”
In an August blog post explaining the suspension, HUD said the delay is not a rollback of the rule and public housing agencies can implement it now if they are ready.
“As the original deadline approached, it became clear to us that PHAs needed more time to integrate this big change into their voucher programs,” the post states.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund said in a statement that the FRM rule will allow low-income families access to a broader market of rental properties.
Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP LDF, said, “The new rule gives families the purchasing power to move to higher-opportunity neighborhoods instead of being confined to segregated and impoverished ones.”
“But the rule doesn’t just open the door to a wider variety of housing choices. Families would also be able to choose better schools, jobs, healthcare, and even better grocery stores. HUD’s delay will needlessly deprive families of access to these staples of stable communities,” she said in the statement.
OCA’s complaint claims the two-year suspension of the FRM rule is unlawful because HUD failed to follow administrative procedure rules requiring an opportunity for public comment and did not provide sufficient justifications for the change
The lawsuit also alleges that HUD’s action violates its duty under the Fair Housing Act to spend federal funds in a way that affirmatively furthers fair housing, rather than increasing racial segregation and concentrated poverty.
OCA, Carter and Moore seek a court order requiring HUD to implement the new FMR rule on schedule.
NAACP LDF Senior Counsel Ajmel Quereshi said via email that harm caused by the delay on African-American families “is serious and potentially long-lasting.”
“Two years is a significant delay for families across the country who rely on vouchers for housing. It means for at least two more years families won’t be able to move into neighborhoods with better jobs and schools,” Quereshi said.
HUD announced the new FMR rule in 2016, changing the housing voucher formula for 24 metropolitan areas. In each metro area, the rule would require voucher amounts to be based on the average rent values by zip code.
The new formula effectively raises the allowable rent amount for thousands of participating families and gives them more choices.
OCA Executive Director Erin Boggs said the FMR rule “is an important step for putting ‘choice’ back into the Housing Choice Voucher program.”
“Currently, about half of families using this program in Connecticut live in the 2 percent of the state with the least access to opportunities that lead to success later in life,” Boggs said
OCA is based in Hartford, one of the 23 metro areas affected by HUD’s suspension of the FRM rule.
The NAACP LDF and Relman, Dane & Colfax are joined in their representation of the plaintiffs by the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Public Citizen Litigation Group.
“HUD abandoned its fair housing obligations at the expense of America’s poorest renters by suspending this long-overdue rule,” John P. Relman, managing partner at Relman, Dane & Colfax, said in a statement. “We are filing this lawsuit to hold HUD accountable for refusing to follow the regulation it wrote.”
HUD’s August blog post said the decision to delay mandatory implementation of the rule “was informed by research.”
“A handful of [public housing agencies, or PHAs] are currently operating a Small Area FMR demonstration,” the agency said. “We now have some preliminary results from a just-published interim evaluation that provides information on administrative processes and costs as well as some initial estimates of program impacts such as changes to the availability of affordable units, average housing assistant payments, and tenant rent burden. We are looking forward to a final report on this demonstration next summer that will have an additional year of data as well as the results from tenant and landlord interviews.”
In addition to the department, HUD Secretary Ben Carson is also named as a defendant in OCA’s lawsuit.
HUD spokesperson Brian Sullivan told the Intercept that “there is no change in policy,” and that the delay does not mean the FMR rule has been canceled.