Carson’s Call of Duty

photo by Gage Skidmore

Dr. Ben Carson

The Hill published my most recent column, Ben Carson’s Call of Duty as America’s Housing Chief:

Ben Carson, the nominee for secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), has made almost no public pronouncements about housing policy. The one exception is a Washington Times opinion piece from 2015 in which he addresses an Obama administration rule on fair housing.

While Carson appears to agree with the Obama administration’s diagnosis of the problem of segregation, he attacks its solution. If he refuses to vigorously enforce the rule at HUD, it is still incumbent on him to address the underlying problem it was meant to address.

Carson acknowledges the history of structural racism in American housing markets. He notes that segregation was caused in part by the federal government’s reliance on “redlining,” which refers to the Federal Housing Administration’s mid-20th century practice of drawing a red line around minority communities on underwriting maps and then refusing to insure mortgages within those borders.

He also acknowledges that racially restrictive covenants played a significant role in maintaining segregation. Racially restrictive covenants were legally enforceable agreements among property owners to keep homes from being sold to members of various minority groups. African Americans were the group most often targeted by them.

These covenants were very common in the mid-20th century, until the Supreme Court ruled that they were not legally enforceable. Shockingly, the Federal Housing Administration continued to encourage their use, even after the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Carson also acknowledged that “the Fair Housing Act and other laws have greatly reduced explicit discrimination in housing” but that “significant disparities in housing availability and quality persist.”

All in all, Carson’s take on the history of American housing policy is consistent with the consensus view across the left and the right: the federal government promoted segregationist housing policies for a large part of the 20th century.

Where he veers sharply from the Obama administration is in crafting a solution. The Obama administration promulgated a rule pursuant to the Fair Housing Act that would require localities to affirmatively promote fair housing if they chose to take funds from HUD.

While Carson states that the Obama rule is based on a “tortured reading of Fair Housing law,” the statutory authority for it is pretty clear. The Fair Housing Act states that HUD is to administer housing programs “in a manner affirmatively to further the policies” of the law.

Carson has characterized the Obama administration rule as a “socialist experiment.” I think his characterization is just plain wrong, particularly because the federal government often ties the provision of federal funds to various policy goals.

Think, for instance, of how federal highway dollars were tied to lowering state speed limits to 55 miles an hour. Such linkages are hardly socialist experiments. They merely demonstrate the power of the purse, a long-time tool of the federal government. Even if Carson cannot be convinced of this, the debate over how to address this legacy of discrimination does not end there.

After all, Carson’s opinion identified a serious problem: segregation resulting from longstanding policies of the federal government. He then stated that he does not agree with the Obama administration’s approach to solving the problem. He concluded by stating, “There are reasonable ways to use housing policy to enhance the opportunities available to lower-income citizens.”  But he failed to identify a single policy to address the problems caused by those longstanding and discriminatory federal policies.

If confirmed, Carson must outline how the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development can address the legacy of structural racism in American housing markets. The text of the Fair Housing Act makes it clear that HUD must administer its housing programs in a manner that would affirmatively further the policies of the law.

The problem Carson faces is clear. The duty imposed upon him by the law is clear.  What remains unclear is how he will fulfill that duty. He has both a legal and moral obligation to set forth his vision, if he is bent on rejecting that of President Obama.

Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing

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The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit issued a ruling in Westchester v. HUD, No. 15-2294 (Sept. 25, 2015) the longstanding case regarding whether Westchester County has “adequately analyzed — in its applications for HUD funds — impediments to fair housing within the County’s jurisdictions.” (3) The Second Circuit affirmed the District Court’s judgment in favor of HUD, which means that HUD’s withholding of funds under the Community Planning and Development (CPD) Formula Grant Programs stands.

HUD withheld those funds because it found that the County had failed to “assess the impediments to fair housing choice caused by local zoning ordinances or to identify actions the County would take to overcome these impediments.” (6) HUD further found, as a result that the County would not “affirmatively further fair housing” as required by the Fair Housing Act. (6)

The case resolved a narrow, legalistic question:

May HUD require a jurisdiction that applies for CPD funding to analyze whether local zoning laws will impede the jurisdiction’s mandate to “affirmatively further fair housing”? Because HUD may impose such a requirement on jurisdictions that apply for CPD funds, and because the decision to withhold Westchester County’s CPD funds in this case was not arbitrary or capricious, we conclude that HUD’s action complied with federal law. (50)

While the case was decided on narrow grounds, the Court does notes that

The broader dispute between the County and HUD implicates many “big‐picture” questions. Beyond prohibiting direct discrimination based on race or other protected categories, what must a jurisdiction do to “affirmatively further fair housing”? What is the difference, if any, between furthering “fair” housing and furthering “affordable” housing? How much control may HUD exert over local policies, which, in its view, impede the creation of “fair” or “affordable” housing? And if conflicts of this sort between HUD and local governments are to be avoided, is the simplest solution to avoid applying for federal funds in the first place? (32)

These are all very good questions and it is unfortunate that this case does not help to answer any of them. The level of segregation in the United States by race has been a tragedy for many, many decades and we are no closer to figuring out how to deal with it after all these years.