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Pursuing housing desegregation in the Trump era

Teresa Wiltz, Stateline.org on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- Fifty years ago, just a week after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and cities went up in flames -- President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act. For the first time, housing discrimination was illegal.

The law also did something else: It required cities to "affirmatively further fair housing" -- that is, to actively eliminate segregation in their communities.

Civil rights advocates hoped the law would be the key to finally ending the extreme racial segregation around the country. But enforcement of the law was sporadic at best, and a half-century later, segregation remains deeply entrenched in the United States. In fact, some of the nation's most diverse cities -- those with large non-white populations -- are among the most segregated.

To remedy this, the Obama administration in 2015 approved stringent guidance that gave communities a blueprint for addressing racial segregation aggressively -- and threatened the denial of millions of federal dollars if they failed to do so.

But in January, the Trump administration suspended the rule. Some cities and counties are proceeding with their desegregation plans, but the delay by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development could make things harder for them on several levels, said Thomas Silverstein, counsel for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit formed in 1963 at the behest of President John F. Kennedy to combat racial discrimination.

Even if cities try to submit their plans to HUD, they won't receive feedback about how to improve them, he said. Without HUD oversight, it will be harder for cities to get community members involved in the planning process, or to get neighboring jurisdictions to cooperate with plans, he said.

"There is only so much that core cities can do if the suburbs choose not to take this process seriously," Silverstein said.

The latest to pledge progress is New York City, which in March announced that it would study patterns of segregation throughout its five boroughs and come up with a plan to combat it.

Chicago; Contra Costa County, Calif.; Dallas; and Los Angeles County say they're moving forward with their plans.

"Now is not the time to roll back on advancement," said Maria Torres-Springer, commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development. "These issues are too important for us not to take very decisive action."

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