by Jessica Sanchez, J.D., Housing Services Manager, Housing Rights Center of Michigan
The Supreme Court is currently hearing a case that could have a major and lasting impact on how racial disparities in housing are addressed. In Texas Dept. of Housing and Community Affairs vs. The Inclusive Communities Project, the Inclusive Communities Project, a group that advocates for more integration in Texas, argued that the state of Texas set up a system to allocate tax credits in such a way that low income housing was built almost exclusively in high poverty, minority neighborhoods. They also argued that this practice had the effect of furthering racial segregation, rather than integration.
The case involves a question about the power of the Fair Housing Act, which made discrimination in housing illegal. It has been widely accepted for decades that the Act bars policies and practices that have a “disparate impact” or a disproportionate adverse impact on persons of a protected group.
Broadly, the case asks whether the law prohibits only intentional discrimination, or whether it also applies to race-neutral policies which still have the effect of harming minorities. Examples of the second type of discrimination include cases where banks have disproportionately provided minority borrowers with unfavorable subprime loans, as compared to non-minorities, and instances where zoning laws have the effect of blocking housing for low income minorities in certain areas. Similarly, in the current case before the Court, Texas officials are not accused of intentional discrimination, but rather setting up a system that resulted in discrimination nonetheless.
Despite progress in a lot of other areas of civil rights including employment, many American communities are still deeply segregated by race. Here in Michigan, the city of Detroit is the most racially segregated city in the nation, according to 2010 U.S. Census data, with 8 Mile Road being a sharp dividing line between predominantly black neighborhoods on one side, and predominantly white neighborhoods on the other.
Housing desegregation creates opportunities for minorities as it influences many facets in life including: where children get to go to school, whether they will have the opportunity for certain after-school activities, their living environment including even how much pollution is in the air, and what kinds of employment and health care people have access to, among many other factors that greatly impact quality of life.
Civil rights groups and 17 states including New York and California as well as many cities have sided in support of The Inclusive Communities Project and allowing disparate impact claims. They argue that the alternative would effectively gut the Fair Housing Act and only allow for claims when there is evidence of intentional discrimination-a much higher bar to meet. Critics, including those representing the housing and banking industry argue that the Court should rule that disparate impact claims are not recognized under the Fair Housing Act. They also point out that it is more costly to build affordable housing in wealthier neighborhoods, and that the fear of being sued with disparate impact claims may discourage developers from pursuing affordable housing projects, adversely impacting minorities.
The Supreme Court should decide the case this summer.
Jessica Sanchez is an Attorney, Housing Counselor, and Housing Services Manager at Elder Law of Michigan, and has been a member of the Elder Law team since 2010.
Ms. Sanchez holds a Bachelor of Arts from Michigan State University in Sociology, and in 2009 received her Juris Doctorate from the Moritz College of Law at The Ohio State University. She became a member of the State Bar and licensed to practice law in the State of Michigan in 2010.
As an attorney at Elder Law, Ms. Sanchez provides housing counseling advice and services through the Housing Rights Center of Michigan and is certified by the Michigan State Housing Development Authority.