April 11 marks the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, a measure meant to ensure that people from marginalized groups have an equal opportunity to buy or rent homes and are not discriminated against.
President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the act in the days after civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) considers combatting housing discrimination to be one of its key missions.
But a half-century later, housing advocates are worried that President Donald Trump — who was once sued for housing discrimination — and HUD Secretary Ben Carson are abandoning this important goal.
Those concerns were exacerbated in March, when HUD confirmed that it was considering replacing anti-discrimination language in its mission statement with a reference to encouraging “self-sufficiency.”
The changes have yet to be finalized, but civil rights groups, fair housing advocates, and politicians are alarmed that a government agency expressly tasked with combating housing discrimination would consider making such a move.
“Secretary Carson is sending a message to the country that he does not take discrimination in the housing market seriously,” Diane Yentel, president and CEO of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, told Newsweek in March. Even if the language changes happen, she said, HUD Secretary Ben Carson and the agency still have a legal obligation to fight housing discrimination.
Carson has pushed back on the idea that the agency was moving away from that mission. “The Department’s mission statement has changed from time to time to capture the dynamic nature of our work. It changed in 2003 and again in 2010. Now, in 2018, we are considering another change to our mission statement and are seeking comments and ideas from our senior staff,” he wrote in a March 8 letter to HUD staffers.
“The notion that any new mission statement would reflect a lack of commitment to fair housing is nonsense,” he added.
Still, the proposal fits with the new conservative direction that Carson has been pushing HUD toward for months. Though his efforts have, at times, been obscured by his lack of experience and a number of ongoing scandals at the agency, the changes to the mission statement, coupled with Carson’s moves to roll back Obama-era housing policies, suggest that Carson wants to radically shift a key part of HUD’s fundamental mission and focus.
HUD is supposed to help marginalized groups. But Carson seems to be trying to change that.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development is the main federal agency tasked with overseeing housing in the US. This includes programs related to homeowner protection, mortgage lending, affordable housing, and community development.
The agency is also supposed to promote anti-discrimination and fairness in housing, and, under the Fair Housing Act of 1968, is authorized to investigate claims of housing discrimination. Because of this, much of HUD’s work revolves around assisting marginalized groups, particularly people of color and LGBTQ individuals.
But recent reports suggest that the agency may be deemphasizing this part of its mission. In March, the Huffington Post broke the news of the changes to the mission statement, citing a leaked March 5 internal memo issued by Amy Thompson, HUD’s assistant secretary for public affairs.
In the memo, Thompson says that the mission statement is being updated “in an effort to align HUD’s mission with the Secretary’s priorities and that of the Administration.”
The original mission statement, which is still on HUD’s website, contains several references to “inclusive and sustainable communities”:
HUD’s mission is to create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all. HUD is working to strengthen the housing market to bolster the economy and protect consumers; meet the need for quality affordable rental homes; utilize housing as a platform for improving quality of life; build inclusive and sustainable communities free from discrimination, and transform the way HUD does business.
But as HuffPost’s Amanda Terkel notes, the new statement removes a significant number of words and replaces references to inclusive communities with a line about self-sufficiency:
HUD’s mission is to ensure Americans have access to fair, affordable housing and opportunities to achieve self-sufficiency, thereby strengthening our communities and nation.
In a March 7 statement, HUD said that the changes were “modest” and that mission statements from the agency will continue to “embody the principle of fairness as a central element.” The agency added that “HUD has been, is now, and will always be committed to ensuring inclusive housing, free from discrimination for all Americans.”
Carson has long been critical of how HUD approaches housing discrimination
HUD would not be the first agency to change a significant part of its mission statement under Trump. In February, US Citizenship and Immigration Services removed the phrase “nation of immigrants” from its mission statement language.
Much like the USCIS change, adjusting the HUD mission statement would serve as a symbolic confirmation of a policy shift that is already underway. Since assuming leadership of HUD last year, Carson has moved to deemphasize the importance of anti-discrimination work at the agency.
The first signs of this shift appeared during his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. In a 2015 column for the Washington Times, Carson criticized an Obama administration rule that would require recipients of HUD block grants to complete assessments explaining what their communities look like and how they were working to combat segregation. Carson argued the rule was not focused on explicit discrimination, calling it a form of “social engineering” that relies “on a tortured reading of the Fair Housing laws.”
In January, the Trump administration announced it was delaying the implementation of the rule until 2020, although due to the way the rule is structured, this actually means it won’t go into effect until much later.
This isn’t the only Obama-era rule Carson has attempted to avoid. As Jeff Andrews writes for Curbed, HUD has also moved to delay the Small Area Fair Market Rent (SAFMR) rule, which would give people receiving Section 8 housing vouchers more options when choosing where to live. This would allow them to move out of the poorer, more racially segregated areas that voucher recipients are often limited to.
Carson wanted to postpone implementing the rule for two years to give housing authorities more time to implement the change, but civil rights groups filed a lawsuit saying Carson had not followed legal procedure when implementing the change. The court sided with the groups over Carson and the agency is now working to put the SAFMR rule into effect.
The HUD secretary has also opposed same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights, and the agency has actively moved away from combating anti-LGBTQ discrimination in housing. According to ThinkProgress, HUD has withdrawn a survey about LGBTQ homelessness and has quietly eliminated publications that show how to prevent violence against transgender people living in homeless shelters. The agency is currently being sued for more information on its handling of LGBTQ housing issues.
In late March, the New York Times reported that the head of HUD’s Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity division paused several fair housing investigations last fall. The investigations had been ordered by previous HUD Secretary Julian Castro. And some preliminary cases, including an investigation into Facebook’s alleged practice of allowing advertisers to exclude certain racial groups from seeing housing ads, have been terminated.
“For all intents and purposes, this administration is stopping the enforcement of civil rights and fair housing laws at the worst possible time,” Gustavo Velasquez, who served as assistant secretary for fair housing during the Obama administration, told the Times.
Housing policy experts have been troubled by these developments. “Carson has sent very clear messages, through both his policy decisions and public statements, that he doesn’t think the federal government has a role in reducing racial disparities,” Jenny Schuetz, a fellow with the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, told me. “That’s very concerning because we still have large disparities between blacks and whites in homeownership, housing wealth, and neighborhood quality.”
Those disparities can be severe and were exacerbated by the Great Recession. Research from the Urban Institute found that black homeownership rates in 2015 were roughly the same level as they were in 1968. And black Americans continue to be more likely than other groups to live in areas that are racially isolated.
“Black families haven’t seen material improvements in their housing situation along two measures: homeownership rates and wealth,” Schuetz explains.
But Carson — who once referred to poverty as a “state of mind” that could be overcome with “the right mindset” — has shifted HUD toward promoting “self-sufficiency.” One of his largest projects revolves around the creation of EnVision Centers, one-stop shops that would encourage people “to leave HUD-assisted housing through self-sufficiency to become responsible homeowners and renters in the private market.”
According to the HUD website, the project, which would see some 3,000 centers created in the next few years, would focus on providing training and resources in four areas: character and leadership, educational advancement, economic empowerment, and health and wellness. The New York Times notes, however, that Carson’s new pet project hasn’t received much support from the Trump administration, getting just $2 million in funding over the next year.
Carson denies claims that he’s shifting HUD’s goals away from combatting housing discrimination. “A lot of people think we’re changing the whole Fair Housing Act and what it implies, like affirmatively furthering fair housing,” Carson said during a visit to Memphis this week. “We want to be able to give people grants, but we also are changing the way we do things, where we’re providing people with a ladder that they can climb.”
But despite Carson’s words, fighting housing discrimination seems like it has become a priority in word only. And that’s going to have an impact — on the agency itself and on thousands of marginalized Americans all over the country.