The drama in D.C. brought plenty of reason to drive the civically-minded to drink this week, from the bought-and-paid confirmation of Betsy DeVos to Gestapo-like ICE round-ups to the attempted silencing of Senator Elizabeth Warren. (Yeah, Mitch, like that was gonna work. The thing about persistence is...well, you’ll figure it out.)
But some of the more pernicious acts of Congress don’t make particularly sexy happy hour conversation. (Or unhappy hour, as it were.) One that’s got me pouring an extra finger of bourbon in my highball as of late is the so-called Local Zoning Decisions Protection Act of 2017, which appears to protect nothing but the willful ignorance of those who would like to believe housing discrimination is a thing of the past.
Trotted out in January by Senators Mike Lee (R-UT) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) along with a House version by Arizona rep Paul Gosar, S.103 and H.R. 482 effectively call for the erasure of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule put forth by the Obama administration in 2015, basically bulldozing what was starting to look like the beginnings of a level playing field.
An update to the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the AFFH gives teeth to the section of the original FHA that mandates an active effort by the government to disrupt patterns of racial segregation and economic stagnation in local communities.
Thing is, no one has tried to enforce those requirements since 1970, back when then-Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (and Mitt’s daddy) George Romney tried to hassle President Richard Nixon into supporting suburban integration and was fired for his efforts.
The 2015 fair housing rule isn’t just a stern reminder of Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act: It also provides a clear roadmap on how to implement integration by making available volumes of federally-collected demographic and GIS data for use by smaller municipalities, who in turn use that information to identify patterns of segregation and discrimination that contribute to intergenerational poverty and high crime—issues that ought to make Savannah perk its ears up.
“This rule has been misconstrued as some kind of national zoning ordinance, which couldn’t be further from the truth,” says Wayne Dawson, the director of the Savannah-Chatham County Fair Housing Council.
“What it does do is help determine the barriers to fair housing at the local level and eradicate them.”
Rep. Gohar doesn’t believe, or maybe just won’t admit, that such injustices still exist, declaring in 2015 that “this new Washington mandate has nothing to do with race, as housing discrimination has been illegal for more than 40 years.”
Um, all kinds of nefarious things are illegal, dude, but that doesn’t stop them from happening, does it? As a matter of fact, housing discrimination is as easy to find as roaches or mold, which I’ve been told by plenty of landlords don’t exist either but have a look under the fridge:
Research conducted by HUD in 2012 showed that African American, Latino and Asian homeseekers were shown fewer options, quoted higher rents, asked more probing questions about their finances and were less likely to be offered loan advice than equally-qualified white counterparts.
In 2000, another HUD study found that black families in Atlanta were disproportionately victimized by predatory lending practices born from the subprime mortgage market, findings paralleled in other major U.S. cities.
Our local Fair Housing Council conducts its own “mystery shopper” tests and investigates reports of malfeasance, but the most valuable work is done with the data itself. The City of Savannah receives federal HUD funds for its Community Block Grant and other development, which requires regular fair housing assessments, the most recent currently in draft form at savannahafh.com. There aren’t any surprises there; neighborhoods with high concentrations of public housing are the poorest, and certain Section 8 apartment complexes are “disproportionately skewered” towards race. However, the specifics help pinpoint the work to be done.
“Once you identify these areas, you can find the food deserts where people lack access to fresh food, where there are disparities in health because of substandard housing, where are there are barriers to transportation that make it hard for people to get to a job across town,” explains Dawson. “Then you can get down to the business of resolving them.”
Relevant here is that such reports are driven heavily by that great AFFH toolkit introduced in 2015, totally wrenched by the language in H.R. 482 that says “no Federal funds may be used to design, build, maintain, utilize, or provide access to a Federal database of geospatial information on community racial disparities or disparities in access to affordable housing.”
In other words, lose the data, and communities are cut off from solutions—while still receiving development grants from the government.
“What will happen if they eliminate the use of that tool is an inefficient use of federal funding,” continues Dawson.
Wasting taxpayer money doesn’t seem to concern the bills’ supporters, and in spite of Gohar’s blinky-eyed denial this isn’t about race, it will undoubtedly lead to more incidences of prejudice if there aren’t means to document them.
“To defund those studies makes it impossible to know when that discrimination is happening,” says noted anti-racism scholar Tim Wise, who calls the bill “a horrible piece of legislation.”
Wise—named one of the “Wokest White People in America” by TheRoot.com—was in Savannah last week delivering a lecture for the Campus Conversations series at the soon-to-be-usurped Armstrong State University (a whole other ball of confusion!) The prolific author addressed the importance of staying abreast of the ways the current regime is rolling back protective measures against discrimination in every facet of American life.
“They can say it’s about big government or saving money or whatever, but make no mistake: This is about attacking civil rights,” admonished Wise to the crowd.
I know, with all the turmoil playing out in the political theater, it’s hard to get worked up about yet another thing (all those calls and letters, and they confirmed DeVos anyway, the shills.) And there’s little doubt these bills will be embraced like adorable kittens by new HUD Secretary Ben Carson, who famously grew up in public housing yet opines that integrating subsidized housing into neighborhoods with better transportation options and less crime amounts to “social engineering.” As if segregation is something that happens all by itself!
Yet there seems something so devious in this squashing of information that helps small communities solve its biggest problems. Dawson reminds that the Fair Housing Act not only applies to race but also to religion and people with disabilities, and removing the ability to document discrimination doesn’t mean the discrimination doesn’t exist.(Sexual and gender identity are not protected. Yet.)
“You can face the problem, or you can do away with the awareness of the problem so you don’t have to face it all,” he says “That’s what this legislation does.”
I’m not alone in invoking sociologist W.E.B Du Bois, who wrote, “We must study, we must investigate, we must attempt to solve” injustice with “the heart-quality of fairness and an earnest desire for the truth, despite its possible unpleasantness.”
Fair housing studies might not be the hottest topic at the table, but if we don’t fight for the truth with all our hearts can muster, we are looking at a deeply unfair and unpleasant future for us all.