Housing Advocates Bring Suit Over Carson-Blocked Policy

WASHINGTON (CN) – The Department of Housing and Urban Development drew legal fire Tuesday for delaying an Obama-era rule designed to tackle housing discrimination and segregation.

Adopted in 2015, the rule known as Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing requires cities and counties that receive federal housing funds to assess longstanding fair-housing problems, then propose a plan to fix them, in a report to Housing and Urban Development.

Any jurisdiction whose assessment did not win Housing and Urban Development approval would be required to draft revisions or potentially lose their federal funding. 

In their lawsuit Tuesday, several advocacy groups note that the 2015 rule “already has paid dividends.”

They say HUD Secretary Ben Carson nevertheless began scaling back implementation of the rule shortly after he took office last year, and then suspended the rule all together this past January.

As a result, no recipient of federal housing funds will have to submit an assessment until at least 2024.

Represented by the firm Relman Dane, the National Fair Housing Alliance brought the suit in Washington alongside the Texas Low Income Housing Information Service and Texas Appleseed.

“In suspending the rule the way that it did, HUD actually took the public out of the calculus,” Jorge Andres Soto, director of public policy at the National Fair Housing Alliance, said in a phone interview. “They denied the public their rightful opportunity to comment on such a drastic change in federal policy that will affect communities across the country.”

In addition to alleging a violation of the Administrative Procedure Act, the alliance and its co-plaintiffs contend that HUD’s actions violated the Fair Housing Act itself.

One of the law’s provisions – the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing requirement – compels the secretary to administer housing programs in a way that furthers the goals of the law. According to the lawsuit, Housing and Urban Development has for decades inadequately enforced that part of the law.

“The agency has permitted more than 1,200 grantees — mostly local and state government entities — to collectively accept billions of dollars in federal housing funds annually without requiring them to take meaningful steps to address racial segregation and other fair housing problems that have long plagued their communities,” the 60-page complaint states.

The 2015 Obama rule – the result of a six-year process – was an attempt to remedy that, the lawsuit says, noting that grantees had been able to “virtually ignore” the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing requirement.

When reached by phone, a representative for Housing and Urban Development declined to comment beyond what they agency said on Jan. 4 statement when it announced the delay.

According to the Jan. 4 statement, the Trump administration sought public comments on potentially “burdensome or unclear” rules.

“What we heard convinced us that the Assessment of Fair Housing tool for local governments wasn’t working well,” the statement said. “In fact, more than a third of our early submitters failed to produce an acceptable assessment — not for lack of trying but because the tool designed to help them to succeed wasn’t helpful.”

Tuesday’s lawsuit meanwhile asserts that several jurisdictions have committed to concrete reforms after going through the AFH drafting process.

Some of these commitments include assistance for residents of mostly black neighborhoods faced with unwarranted evictions, more disability-friendly zoning processes and more affordable rentals in higher-end areas.

Soto with the National Fair Housing Alliance said the organization believes the law is on their side.

“We do believe that the court understands the importance of enforcing the Fair Housing Act. The AFFH rule is critically important to reach full implementation of the law,” he said, abbreviating Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing. “And we hope that the court will rule consistently to ensure that people across America have fair housing in their communities and HUD funding is spent in a way that helps them with their needs, regardless of their race, ethnicity, disability, sex, or if they have children.”

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