HUD Finally Stirs on Housing Discrimination

ProPublica Staff

United States (ProPublica) – by Nikole Hannah-Jones

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has

accused Dallas, one of the nation’s largest cities, of violating civil rights

law through housing practices that discriminated against black, Latino and

disabled residents.

HUD officials laid out the results of a four-year

investigation in

a letter sent to city leaders late last month. HUD found that Dallas, which

accepted tens of millions in federal dollars with promises of using that money

to help integrate the deeply divided city, had instead “subjected persons to

segregation” and “restricted access to housing choice.” The city, the letter said, had denied local

residents opportunities to participate in housing programs “because of race,

national origin and disability.”

The agency has given the city 30 days to respond to the accusations,

which jeopardize millions in annual HUD funding.

HUD’s findings against the country’s 9th largest city

cap a year that has seen some of the most substantial developments in federal fair

housing enforcement in years. As ProPublica documented in a

series that ran late last year, the federal government has spent the last

45 years largely neglecting provisions of the Fair Housing Act that require it

to take affirmative steps to eradicate housing segregation. The chief way to do

that has been to cut off federal funds to communities that act in ways that

maintain or increase housing segregation. But HUD never did.

When President Obama came into office, the nation’s top

housing officials vowed to change that. “Until now, we tended to lay dormant,” Ron Sims, HUD’s then

deputy secretary said in August of 2009. “This is historic, because we are

going to hold people’s feet to the fire.”

Still, little improved during Obama’s first term. That appears to be changing.

While HUD may not

have turned into the raging Goliath that activists had hoped, the giant is stirring.

This year, HUD released a proposed

regulation that for the first

time clearly defined the steps local and state governments that receive HUD

funding must take to show they are complying with the Fair Housing Act. Advocates

have waited decades for HUD to issue the rule, which was shelved by the Clinton

Administration in the face of objections from counties and cities.

Earlier this year, HUD

also released a long-awaited

regulation formalizing a national standard for when

housing practices violate civil rights law by disproportionately harming racial

minorities, the disabled and other protected groups.

HUD’s history has been dominated by its deference to the

cities and towns it funnels billions of dollars to — even those sued by the U.S. Department

of Justice and those found guilty by federal judges of violating civil rights. When

outside parties have alerted HUD to the ways government officials have discriminated

through building and zoning — such as in the landmark Westchester County, N.Y.

fair housing case that settled in 2009 — HUD hasbeen reticent to get to take

serious steps.

That’s why the

Dallas findings could be big.

Similar to the

Westchester case, HUD was alerted to the possible wrongdoing of Dallas officials

by a whistleblower, in this case a developer who’d had affordable housing

blocked in a downtown district that is white and affluent. The developer,

Curtis Lockey, accused Dallas officials of conspiring to keep black, Latino,

and disabled residents out of downtown. Lockey filed a complaint with HUD in

February 2010.

HUD refused to

get involved with the Westchester case until a federal judge overseeing the case

began lambasting HUD for its failures to enforce the Fair Housing Act. But

Dallas was different — HUD investigated and confirmed Lockey’s accusations.

Dallas officials

deny wrongdoing. “The City complies with HUD guidelines and regulations in its work with

affordable housing projects,” said a Dallas spokesperson in

a statement.

Before this year locality, had ever lost

its HUD dollars over failures to comply with civil rights laws. But this fall,

HUD stripped $7.4 million in federal development grants from a Westchester County for failing to comply with the Fair

Housing Act.

HUD’s new efforts

have caught the attention of major housing industry players who have long

opposed heightened fair housing enforcement. Just this week, the American Banker published a piece questioning whether

the agency’s hiring of a former National Fair Housing Alliance staffer to handle enforcement represents

a conflict of interest. (HUD says there was no conflict.) By the time the article ran, the HUD

official in question, had been heading fair housing enforcement for more than

three years.

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