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One Goal of the March on Washington Gets a Bit Closer

On the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, we want to highlight the President’s important recent step toward one of its goals:  the freedom to choose where to live without regard to the color of one’s skin.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968, a landmark civil rights law that followed the march, outlawed racial discrimination in the sale, rental, or financing of housing.  Now, some 45 years later, the federal government finally is proposing regulations to give meaning to the Act’s requirement that recipients of federal housing and community development funds “act affirmatively” to further fair housing.

That means “taking proactive steps beyond simply combating discrimination to foster more inclusive communities and access to community assets for all persons protected by the Fair Housing Act,” the proposed regulation explains.

Under the proposed rule, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) would provide public housing agencies (PHAs) that administer federal rental assistance, as well as states and localities that receive federal funds for community development or housing assistance, with data on racially and ethnically concentrated areas of poverty, assets like education and jobs, and related factors.  With public input, agencies and communities would then set fair housing goals and develop strategies to achieve them.

Some will likely criticize the rule as a new and unreasonable burden.  Such objections are misguided.

Congress — not President Obama — imposed fair housing obligations on federal grantees by enacting the 1968 law.  Indeed, Congress reiterated PHAs’ obligation to comply with civil rights laws and promote fair housing as recently as 2008.

HUD would provide the data, and PHAs and states and localities would set their own goals and strategies, as part of planning processes that they already must undertake under other existing laws.  What they could no longer do is simply check a box claiming that they comply with all fair housing requirements without giving any thought to the extent of fair housing issues in their area or what they are doing to address them.

This analysis will take some new effort for many, but PHAs can reduce the minor burden by joining with a local jurisdiction, regional group, or state in their assessment.

Public actions contributed to segregation, and public action is necessary to reduce its “heavy social cost.” Nowhere is this clearer than in the location of public housing, as this recent Urban Institute post explains.  But it’s true as well for recipients of Housing Choice Vouchers, too many of whom live in areas of concentrated poverty.

PHAs, as well as states and local jurisdictions, can do a lot to expand the housing choices of both public housing residents and voucher holders.  To cite just one example, they can make it easier for families to use vouchers to rent housing in safer neighborhoods with better schools.

HUD’s important rule is long overdue.