Fair Housing Month: Three Local Stories To Keep An Eye On

On April 11, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act (FHA), outlawing housing discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex, familial status, national origin or disability. The FHA aimed to address the pervasive issues of redlining and other discriminatory housing practices, thereby creating a more just and inclusive society.

Redlining refers to the discriminatory practices used to exclude minorities and immigrants from gaining access to financial services and assets by drawing maps that designated less-White neighborhoods “Hazardous.” The federal government would not insure a mortgage loan made in one of these red-tinted “Hazardous” map areas, thus making it impossible to get a home loan within those neighborhoods. Barred from homeownership and restricted to areas deemed hazardous by the federal government, many families of color were left with a lack of generational wealth or tangible assets to pass down to their children. 

The FHA is implemented and monitored by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Organizations like NCRC help realize FHA’s goals by producing research on the effects of redlining, promoting community reinvestment work, advocating for improvements to the law where necessary and identifying challenges that still need to be tackled.  NCRC’s dedicated Fair Housing and Fair Lending Team (FHFLT) conducts a variety of projects in support of that work, including probes of potentially discriminatory practices in the financial services industry. We also keep a close eye on state and local developments connected to fair housing law. 

It’s already been an interesting year for fair housing stories around the country. To mark the end of federal Fair Housing Month in April, here are three stories of progress in promoting equitable housing opportunities, combating discrimination and advancing the principles of economic justice.

New York To Become A “City of Yes”

New York City lawmakers recently began their review of Mayor Eric Adams’ “City of Yes” plan, which aims to address straitjacket zoning laws to help address the city’s drastic shortage of affordable housing units. This project promises to rejuvenate the Big Apple’s real estate landscape and take accountability for the current lack of affordable housing. Elected leaders will collaborate with developers and residents to turn underused office buildings into affordable homes, legalize accessory dwellings and eliminate parking mandates. The mayor’s office has projected that the plan would generate 100,000 new units of affordable housing and put 250,000 New Yorkers in homes. One key provision of the proposal would tie developer incentives to a more ambitious definition of housing affordability: Density bonuses would only be available to projects that would be affordable to someone earning 60% of the Area Median Income (AMI), compared to existing affordable-development incentives that set the bar at 80% AMI.  

Fighting Computerized Discrimination

The frenzy around potential applications of artificial intelligence to improve human life can at times obscure the threats such tools pose if misused. One recent victory for fair housing advocates should help call attention to those perils – and help create a legal precedent for curbing the misuse of advanced technology to thwart the FHA and other civil rights laws.

Open Communities, a local housing advocacy group in Evanston, Illinois, filed a lawsuit last year on behalf of Elizabeth Richardson, a Black woman denied housing due to an AI bot automatically rejecting Section 8 applicants. The suit alleged that a pair of nationwide property management firms called Harbor Group and Azure were using an automated applicant screening system that generated racially disproportionate outcomes. The case was seen as an important test for fair housing law: Amid the rise of AI, discriminatory algorithms have the potential to undo years of FHA progress. It was difficult to predict the outcome of a court weighing in on how 21st century technology interacts with a 1968 law.

Judges did not ultimately need to decide any such questions in the case. In January, Open Communities announced it had reached a settlement with Harbor Group, Azure and the software company called PERQ that the real estate firms had used. This settlement agrees on an important point: AI algorithms ought to be crafted to ensure protected classes have the same likelihood of receiving application review. The software company that is party to the settlement agreed to ensure that the AI tools it markets for lease application screening comply with the FHA, and to audit that compliance twice a year. And although the case and settlement are constrained to the state of Illinois, the principles within it may spread: The real estate company involved in the case also has properties in California, Mississippi, Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey and Washington.

NIMBYs Lose In Orange County

In Orange County, known for its posh aesthetic and affluent crowd, public interest recently trumped private disdain when a court found that the city of Anaheim violated the FHA when it blocked permits for a transitional housing development. The California Department of Housing and Community Development brought the case in 2022, after Anaheim officials rejected an application from local service provider Grandma’s House of Hope to open a new 16-unit facility for homeless women suffering from abuse and mental health issues. Although the city’s staff experts had recommended the permits be approved, city planning commission members voted the proposal down following a dramatic public meeting where people from the surrounding neighborhood railed against Grandma’s House.  This February, a court found in favor of Grandma’s House. The Orange County Superior Court’s decision to overrule Anaheim’s denial and allow ‘Grandma’s House of Hope’ is celebrated as a significant victory for fair housing in California, signaling that discriminatory practices and NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) attitudes will not be tolerated. Governor Gavin Newsom emphasized the importance of transitional homes in addressing homelessness and appropriately warned that communities refusing to allow housing for all Californians will face consequences.

Gwendolyn Havern is an intern on NCRC’s Fair Housing & Fair Lending Team.

Photo via Fumigene on Flickr.

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