Supreme Court housing decision will ensure equal opportunities

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Amidst all the recent news about decisions from the U.S. Supreme Court, it’s important that one less-noticed decision not get lost:  the Court’s landmark ruling regarding housing discrimination.

In a crucial ruling, the Supreme Court upheld a requirement in federal law that protects against housing discrimination against racial or other protected groups, regardless of whether there was intent to discriminate.  The decision will benefit low-income people and people of color in Connecticut and across the country.

Many of Connecticut Legal Services’ clients suffer the humiliation, indignity and trauma that come with being discriminated against because they are both poor and (often) a member of a racial or ethnic minority.

Sometimes our clients decide to take a stand against discrimination.  One client of ours pursued the housing discrimination case she had asked us to bring for her, even though she found it incredibly stressful and traumatic to testify and be cross-examined in the case.  She persisted because she felt it was so important to take a stand against housing discrimination both for herself and for others in similar circumstances.

The Supreme Court’s ruling in Texas Dept. of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project upholds the vital protections afforded under the federal Fair Housing Act that are in place to prevent housing discrimination.

Under the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program, the state of Texas, through its Department of Housing and Community Affairs, gave federal incentives to developers to build or rehabilitate affordable housing.   The Inclusive Communities Project, a fair housing organization, sued Texas and argued that tax credits were targeted primarily to impoverished areas in the Dallas area, so that low-income people would only be able to live in already-poor communities.

No one disagreed that the rules had caused housing segregation based on race.  But the defense argued that the discrimination wasn’t illegal because it was not intentional.

The United States Supreme Court held that the key question is whether policies have had “disparate impact,” and that there does not have to be specific proof of intent. In most cases of housing discrimination, there isn’t overt discrimination taking place.  Housing discrimination is more subtle than that.  We have seen this, for example, with zoning laws that result in segregation.

The Court’s decision has significant potential impact for low-income communities of color in Connecticut.  The lawyers of Connecticut Legal Services assist thousands of these families each year, and we know how hard they struggle to find opportunity and escape from poverty.

One essential challenge for these families is the huge financial pressures they face as a result of housing costs, and the lack of housing opportunity.  Affordable housing is in short supply, but it’s an essential element of stability for the families raising Connecticut’s children.

In 2011, the Center for Housing Policy published a report that looked at affordable housing and its effect on the education of low-income children.  The results show that frequent moves in housing caused educational achievement to decline.  However, moves to communities with better school systems resulted in educational gains.

In addition, affordable housing that is in a high opportunity area and well maintained also facilitates a healthier environment. This can translate to little or no exposure to lead paint, mold, or pesticide treatments that can trigger asthma.  A healthy child in a healthy home is less likely to miss school.

The Court’s decision will ensure that Connecticut’s housing authorities and other housing policy-makers do not develop plans and policies that provide less housing opportunity for families of color, even though discrimination may not be intended.  Discrimination, whether intentional or not, is still very harmful.

It’s the result that matters to all of us, especially if we believe that there should be equal housing opportunity for all.

 Nilda Rodriguez Havrilla is the Housing Unit Manager for Connecticut Legal Services.

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