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Civil rights groups sue HUD alleging housing segregation

30th October 2017   ·   0 Comments

By Della Hasselle
Contributing Writer

Several civil rights organizations sued the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development on Oct. 23, challenging the federal government’s decision to suspend a rule that would have helped low-income families secure affordable housing.

A lawyer for one of the organizations, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., said the delay will “needlessly deprive families.”

“The new rule gives families the purchasing power to move to higher-opportunity neighborhoods instead of being confined to segregated and impoverished ones,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, LDF President and Director-Counsel. “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.”

The lead plaintiff, Open Communities Alliance, is a Connecticut-based fair housing organization. It’s based in Hartford, one of the 23 metro areas affected by HUD’s suspension of the rule.

Also representing plaintiffs are the Relman, Dane & Colfax PLLC law firm, the Poverty & Race Research Action Council (PRRAC), the Lawyers’ Commit-tee for Civil Rights Under Law and Public Citizen Litigation Group.

The lawsuit centers on the federal government’s actions regarding its Housing Choice Voucher program, formerly known as Section 8.

The program subsidizes housing costs for more than two million low-income households throughout America, according to a press release issued by the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

The rule in question, HUD’s Small Area Fair Market Rent rule, would have improved the way that the value of housing vouchers is calculated by allowing low-income families access to a broader market of rental properties, according to the release.

But HUD in August decided to delay the rule’s implementation, an action the lawyers now challenge.

The program was initially designed to help families find affordable housing in the private market. In reality, many families found that the vouchers’ allowable rent value was too low, preventing participants from having meaningful choices in better-quality neighborhoods.

The formula in place “crudely” calculates the value of housing vouchers of entire metropolitan areas, according to the release. That kind of math doesn’t take into account differences in housing costs from neighborhood to neighborhood.

Ultimately, critics say, the policy serves to reinforce residential poverty.

Moreover, civil rights activists say that because the majority of voucher users are Black or Latino, the policies that limit voucher use also increase racial segregation.

The new HUD rule, enacted in 2016 by President Barack Obama’s administration, was designed to decrease that inequity by changing how housing voucher amounts were calculated.

Specifically, the Small Area FMR rule requires that voucher amounts be based on average rent values by zip code.

Studies found the formula would raise the rent for thousands of participating families, thereby giving them greater choice.

One study, published by Freddie Mac Multifamily, which finances rental housing, found that rent affordability for voucher-holders had worsened dramatically between 2010 and 2016.

Freddie Mac Multifamily analyzed loans financed in the six-year time period.

At the first financing, 11.2 percent of the total number of underlying rental units across the United States were categorized as affordable to very low-income households. Very low-income is defined as 50 percent or less of area median income.

At the second financing, rents had increased so significantly that just 4.3 percent of the same units were categorized as affordable to those households, the study found.

Altogether, the study showed affordable housing availability throughout the nation had fallen more than 60 percent.

The decision to delay the new rule doesn’t mean that the government is cancelling it altogether. It was originally scheduled to go into effect Jan.1, 2018; now it’s been pushed to January 2020.

Still, the civil rights organizations argue that suspending the rule was unlawful because HUD failed to follow administrative procedure rules requiring opportunity for public comment and failed to provide “sufficient justifications” for the change.

The lawsuit also alleges that HUD is violating the Fair Housing Act because it’s “increasing racial segregation and concentrated poverty” rather than spending federal funding to further equitable housing.

The plaintiffs are asking a judge to force HUD to implement the new rules on schedule.

“Time and time again, this Administration has acted to pull back public benefits and public protections provided by law,” said Allison Zieve, director of Public Citizen Litigation Group. “Here again, it has done so without following well-established legal requirements that exist to protect Americans from unreasonable and unlawful agency action.”

Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, called the decision to delay the new rule’s implementation an indication of President Donald Trump administration’s intention to “retreat from vigorous civil rights enforcement.”

“Many years of study and work went into the adoption of this rule, one that promotes greater opportunity in housing choice for low-income and minority families and greater residential integration,” Clarke said. “This challenge to its suspension is crucial to the historical fight for a more integrated society.”

This article originally published in the October 30, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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