Civil Rights Groups Challenge HUD’s Fair Housing Enforcement

Houston last September after Hurricane Harvey. The suit claims that Ben Carson is leaving the Department of Housing and Urban Development without a way to prevent a pattern of discrimination in the distribution of $28 billion in relief funding after disasters like Harvey.

Civil rights advocates sued the Trump administration on Tuesday over enforcement of the 50-year-old Fair Housing Act, part of an effort to prevent discrimination in the allocation of funds for Gulf Coast hurricane housing and infrastructure reconstruction.

A coalition of national and Texas-based housing groups filed suit in United States District Court in Washington to reinstate an Obama-era rule that required localities receiving federal development funding to submit plans detailing their efforts to end segregation based on race, income, ethnicity or physical disability.

Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development, suspended the rule, known as the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing provision, this year over concerns that it put too heavy a burden on local governments that would have to allocate resources to produce the plans.

While Mr. Carson favors slowing down enforcement of the antisegregation initiative and limiting its scope, the impetus for doing away with the rule comes from White House officials, according to three people with knowledge of the situation.

Mr. Carson, skeptical that the department can prevail in the case, has authorized his staff to create an alternative plan, which might include a new round of hearings into how to improve the rule, according to one of the officials.

The advocates filing the lawsuit argue that Mr. Carson’s actions violated the 1968 Housing Act, a law that was pressed by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. shortly before his assassination. The suit claims that Mr. Carson is leaving HUD without a system to prevent a pattern of discrimination in the allocation of $28 billion in disaster relief funding after a succession of natural disasters, including Hurricane Harvey, last year.

The fight centers on an affirmative fair housing rule put in place in 2015 after two years of study and public hearings. At the time, Julian Castro, Mr. Carson’s predecessor as HUD secretary, said the regulation would “provide all Americans with access to safe, affordable housing in communities that are rich with opportunity.”

But housing advocates say the administration has not followed through with ensuring equitable treatment in housing, and they are concerned that HUD may discriminate against vulnerable populations when awarding funds to reconstruct areas damaged by natural disasters.

Lisa Rice, the president of the National Fair Housing Alliance, one of the groups bringing the suit, said the litigation was intended to prevent racial bias in the reconstruction of housing, drainage systems and other infrastructure. The group wants to ensure that black, Hispanic and low-income residents of Houston and Corpus Christi are not put at risk in the event of another natural disaster.

“This is the fight Dr. King envisioned, even 50 years later,” Ms. Rice said.

Madison Sloan, the director of Texas Appleseed’s Disaster Recovery & Fair Housing Project, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, said the suit was about not leaving people behind.

“We know that disasters have a disparate impact on the most vulnerable populations, especially communities of color,” she said. “Historically, segregation has forced these communities into the areas most vulnerable to natural disasters. We have to make sure we are rebuilding in a way that remedies, rather than perpetuates, these inequalities.”

A HUD spokesman did not return a call for comment.

Mr. Carson has said he delayed the rule to give localities more time to comply. But his previous comments suggest a lack of affinity for the provision. In a 2015 editorial in the conservative Washington Times, Mr. Carson criticized the effort in sweeping ideological terms, calling it “social engineering,” and predicted that its enforcement would repeat “the failure of school busing” in the 1970s.

Mr. Carson, during testimony last month before congressional committees, said he intended to comply with other department regulations requiring that the majority of disaster relief funding be directed to those most in need.

But he gave little ground on the Obama-era provision when he met with fair housing advocates late last month by rejecting their calls to reinstate the rule. Some department officials said Mr. Carson’s efforts at HUD so far include slowing enforcement actions and investigations of some fair housing violations.

Housing segregation has long been an issue for HUD and has landed previous secretaries in the cross hairs.

George Romney, the first HUD secretary, clashed with President Richard M. Nixon when he tried to withhold federal funding for sewer, highway, water and infrastructure projects in areas that encouraged segregation. Mr. Nixon blocked the program, known as “Open Communities.”

Mr. Romney, the father of Mitt Romney, a former Republican presidential candidate and current Utah Senate candidate, forged ahead with the plan and was eventually ejected from the cabinet.

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