America the Segregated

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If you read one long form web article this week make it ProPublica’s authoritative piece, by Nikole Hannah-Jones, on segregation in America and the unfulfilled promise of the Fair Housing Act. The article is packed with revealing facts about the political cowardice of our political elites, who are armed with a tool to combat one of America’s great injustices but choose instead to enable it. (This article is particularly relevant for residents of the Philadelphia metropolitan area, the ninth most segregated city in the nation: Click this link for a map of this reality.)

George Romney, ol’ Mitt’s dad, plays a prominent role as one of the only policymakers to attempt to utilize the Fair Housing Act to its fullest potential. But Romney was isolated and eventually exiled from the Nixon administration for the sin of incentivizing white communities to build more affordable housing by denying them federal housing dollars if they continued to pursue segregationist policies.

Romney ordered HUD officials to reject applications for water, sewer and highway projects from cities and states where local policies fostered segregated housing.

Nixon put a stop to all that (Romney had tried to execute his plan under the radar, without presidential approval). Since then the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has provided $137 billion to over 1,200 communities, but ProPublica found only two instances since Romney resigned when the department denied funds to communities found to be perpetuating segregation, even though that is exactly what the Fair Housing Act allows, hell, encourages policymakers to do.

The article provides an immensely detailed history of the forces arrayed against the law. The blame cannot simply be laid at the feet of evil Republicans and Dixiecrats. There is far more at work here. The Fair Housing Act implicates the entire nation, not just the easily caricatured Bull Connors of the Deep South (who most Americans could easily distance themselves from). Hannah-Jones tracks down the 84 year old Walter Mondale, one of the principal architects of the original law (as LBJ couldn’t convince any of the liberal lions to support it initially), and gets some golden quotes from him. On why the Fair Housing Act is the least popular, and least enforced, of the 1960s-era  civil rights laws:

“A lot of civil rights was about making the South behave and taking the teeth from George Wallace,” Mondale said, referring to the famously racist governor of Alabama who ran for president in 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1976. “This came right to the neighborhoods across the country. This was civil rights getting personal.”

Hannah-Jones’s article also highlights the fact that legislative victory alone is not enough. What happens afterwards matters. How does the legislation get enacted? Are the institutional actors in question committed to the reform? In HUD’s case, the answer seems to be no. There are massive institutional biases against the program, even when Democrats are in office.

[The Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, charged with carrying out the act] has the smallest staff and budget of HUD’s four major programs. Several officials in key positions said they had never been trained to enforce the law’s requirement to “affirmatively further’ fair housing. In most cases, HUD does not even check the paperwork filed by cities and states about their efforts to deal with segregation and other issues that stymie integrated housing; it simply writes checks.

In conversations with HUD officials, the fair housing office is frequently referred to as a “stepchild.” Achtenberg said this was evident even in the agency’s pay structure, in which staffers in the fair housing office earned less than comparably experienced counterparts elsewhere in the agency.

A list of HUD employees by pay grade shows the fair housing office has a smaller percentage of employees at the highest pay grade than the agency’s three other large programs. It is unclear from the data, which ProPublica obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, why this would be.

In interviews, many HUD officials acknowledged they have no idea how to enforce the provision for affirmatively furthering fair housing. Already overstretched, they focus on what is clear: the disability accommodations provision of the Fair Housing Act. It’s simple, they say, to check off whether an apartment door is wide enough for a wheelchair or if a parking lot has enough handicapped spots.

Obama, like Clinton before him, has staffed the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity with real advocates, but the institutional bias is slow to change, particularly within an administration so wary of racial issues that it has sacrificed career civil servants to a right-wing noise machine that attacks it regardless of the facts.

 “[Under Obama] The message [from on high] is that we need to be more aggressive but absent the new rule, there is very little guidance as to what would constitute a failure to affirmatively further fair housing,” said a senior fair housing official. “There’s a car here and nobody knows how to drive it.”

Of course things would be a good deal worse under Mitt Romney, who has threatened to do away with HUD entirely.

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