The Supreme Court just issued a major ruling that saved a key tool used to prevent discrimination in housing in America.
In a 5-4 decision on Thursday, the court ruled that a law passed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968 aimed at preventing discrimination in buying, renting, and financing homes applies even when the discrimination isn’t overt or intentional.
In 2008, an advocacy group called the Inclusive Communities Project sued the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, claiming that the department perpetuated housing segregation by incentivizing low-income housing developments in predominantly poor neighbourhoods in the Dallas metro-area. The Texas department grants tax credits to developers to build low income housing units without losing money.
Neither Texas nor the Inclusive Communities Project dispute that the state’s actions didn’t perpetuate housing segregation. Rather, the two sides disagreed over whether the actions violate the FHA, which Texas claims only prohibits intentional discrimination.
The Inclusive Communities project disagreed, arguing that the agency’s actions have a “disparate impact” on minorities that constitutes discrimination under the FHA.
If the court had ruled against Inclusive Communities, the decision could have had a huge impact that would have made it much harder to bring housing discrimination suits. As the National Fair Housing organisation notes, overt housing discrimination is fairly rare. Plaintiffs in discrimination suits rely heavily on the “disparate impact” interpretation in order to win cases.
“To suddenly remove what is the core protection of this Fair Housing Act would fundamentally dismantle the very architecture of Civil Rights laws, and would put an end to, and possibly reverse, the gains that were built over the last half century,” Dennis Parker, the director of the Racial Justice Program at the ACLU told the Atlantic.
The court has been itching to weigh in on the Fair Housing Act for years. As The New York Times notes, civil rights activists breathed a sigh of relief in 2013 when a similar case was settled right before it could reach the Supreme Court. Many housing rights advocates feared at the time that the court would likely rule in favour of a stricter interpretation of FHA.
But in oral arguments earlier this year, it was unclear how the justices would rule. The New York Times notes that conservative Justice Antonin Scalia surprised some court-watchers by grilling Texas. Scalia pointed out that Congress amended the Fair Housing Act in 1988 to include provisions barring discriminatory housing practices that have a disparate impact on minorities.
“I find it hard to read those two together in any other way than there is such a thing as disparate impact,” Scalia said.
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