What a Fair Housing Victory in the U.S. Supreme Court Means for Atlanta
With additional reporting by Matthew Charles Cardinale.
(APN) ATLANTA — A decision of the Supreme Court of the U.S. handed down this summer, 2015, could affect affordable housing policies and practices in Georgia.
On September 02, 2015, the Atlanta Regional Housing Forum held a panel discussion on the landmark case, Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc.
The Inclusive Communities Project (ICP) originally sued the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA) for violating the federal Fair Housing Act, claiming the Department’s policies had discriminatory effects.
The Supreme Court sided with ICP on June 25, 2015, affirming an important standard in interpreting the law.
The Court’s decision spelled out that discrimination can be proven, even if there was never an explicit intent to discriminate.
“It upheld an existing legal standard that says… the policy that’s being challenged doesn’t have to say, ‘People with disabilities can’t live here,’ or, ‘People of color can’t live here.’ What it says is that it’s possible to demonstrate, using things like statistical evidence, that the impact of a policy is discriminatory,” Ethan Handelman, Vice President for Policy and Advocacy at the National Housing Conference, said during the panel discussion.
“By reaffirming that standard, in the highest court in the land, it added a lot of energy to this conversation. It reminded people what the Fair Housing Act of 1968 means and what we can do with it to try to change communities for the better,” he said.
In 2007, two public housing residents–Diane Wright and Shirley Hightower–filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) regarding the applications to demolish several public housing communities and senior highrises in Atlanta.
HUD ultimately rejected the complaints because, although the demolitions disproportionately impacted Black households, intent to discriminate on the basis of race could not be proven. [APN’s News Editor was interviewed by the investigator in the case, who indicated that they were looking for evidence of intent, not just impact.]
Laurel Hart, Director of Housing Finance and Development for the Georgia Department of Community Affairs (DCA), explained at the forum how the recent ruling relates to policies in Georgia.
ICP’s lawsuit alleged the Texas agency in charge of public housing segregated people of color into poor neighborhoods by issuing tax credits to developers to build affordable housing in impoverished areas rather than affluent ones.
Hart explained that state agencies use a formula called a Qualified Allocation Plan to determine which affordable housing developments get tax credits.
“If the end result is that we are primarily building in high minority areas with no access to community resources, then we need to make changes in the Qualified Allocation Plan,” Hart said.
Over the past four years, Hart said, DCA has made some changes to the formula.
Proposals are scored using a point system, with points given for projects located near desirable amenities like schools, parks, hospitals, public transportation, and grocery stores. Points are taken away for undesirable characteristics like being located near a landfill or in an area rife with unoccupied, deteriorating houses.
In light of the Supreme Court decision, DCA will continue in that direction, Hart said.
As federal dollars dwindle for the use of affordable housing construction and rehabilitation in U.S. states, jurisdictions trying to stretch their dollars are understandably drawn to locations with low land costs; however, those locations tend to be away from transit, social services, and amenities like grocery stores.
“The decision doesn’t prevent us from building in a blighted area. But when we build in a blighted area, it has to be much more thoughtful. Are we just building a property or are we community building?” she said.
Mike Carnathan, a researcher for the Atlanta Regional Commission, presented a map of Atlanta’s affordable housing units that are home to people with housing vouchers. He overlaid the map with two others showing the race and class composition of metro Atlanta.
“It’s hyper-segregated,” he said.
The poorest areas (South Fulton, South DeKalb, and Clayton counties) are also majority nonwhite, and that’s where housing voucher households are concentrated.
The housing voucher program was the Atlanta Housing Authority’s (AHA) solution to “deconcentrate” poverty, one of its purported, stated goals of public housing demolitions. Under the federal government’s Hope VI program, AHA demolished all of the public housing complexes in the city and gave residents vouchers for subsidized rent.
But many landlords don’t accept the vouchers.
Carnathan’s presentation made it clear that the program has not deconcentrated poverty––a questionable goal in the first place, given that it rests on the assumption that poor people’s lives are somehow transformed by simply being in proximity to wealthy people and the amenities they enjoy, even when existing social networks, support systems, and resident associations are destroyed.
Now that the Supreme Court has upheld provisions of the Fair Housing Act, HUD has responded with a new set of rules to enforce it. The agency issued the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule in July 2015.
The rule “creates a streamlined Assessment of Fair Housing planning process, which will help communities analyze challenges to fair housing choice and establish their own goals and priorities to address the fair housing barriers in their community,” according to a HUD press release.
In theory, the rule should make it easier for communities to take housing authorities to court over violations of the Fair Housing Act. Part of HUD’s plan is to provide tools for communities to collect the statistical evidence needed to prove that a housing policy is discriminatory.
“I think we’ll see some high profile enforcement actions. I hope we do, because that’s necessary to give the rules some credibility,” Handleman said during the panel discussion.
But he added that HUD is understaffed and may be swamped by all the Assessments of Fair Housing that will likely be submitted to the agency.
Whether affected communities in Atlanta will use the new tools and guidelines to once again try to hold AHA accountable remains to be seen.
Also, as previously reported by APN, the City of Atlanta is considering a draft of legislation prepared by the Atlanta Development Authority (dba “Invest Atlanta”) for mandatory inclusionary zoning in Atlanta.
A jurisdiction-wide policy of mandatory IZ for developers to provide some affordable units in new multi-family developments could also help Atlanta affirmatively address fair housing obstacles, as it could promote the inclusion of affordable units in parts of the City currently lacking in affordable units, as long as those areas are already zoned for moderate density or higher.