About a month ago, the Supreme Court announced their decisions on three cases in three different realms of society. All will have a significant impact going forward. Two of them—the nationwide legalization of gay marriage and the upholding of health insurance subsidies on the federal exchange—were given extensive media airtime, and rightly so: both were immensely important cases which immediately affected tens of millions of people and indirectly affected countless more. But there was also a third decision, less heralded, which was in its own way no less important: Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project. Like most Supreme Court cases, the title and text of the case are such that it leaves one yearning for the sprightly cadence of Faulkner or Conrad, but the basic tenet (slant-pun alert) of the decision is this: discriminatory housing policy does not have to be intentional to be illegal.
Unsexy? Perhaps. But of the many factors—education, zoning policies, gentrification—which have contributed to the segregation of America’s cities, governments’ and municipalities’ unwillingness to adopt integration-friendly policies stands out as especially culpable. The case taken up by the Supreme Court was brought by the Inclusive Communities Project, a non-profit dedicated (predictably) to community integration, challenging the decision of the state of Texas, and the Dallas area in particular, to allocate the federally funded Low Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC) nearly exclusively to high-poverty areas.
In and of itself, this is not a terrible thing; indeed, it can be argued that investment in low-income areas is a valuable use of federal resources. But by providing affordable housing only in areas which are already high-poverty, a vicious cycle of economic segregation can develop, and unfortunately, where there is economic segregation, there is typically racial segregation. According to the Atlantic, of the almost 4,000 census tracts in the U.S. in which 40 percent or more of the population is below the poverty line, 70 percent are predominantly minority.
Again, it should be stated that it is not necessarily bad to use the LIHTC in low-income areas; if nothing else, improving the housing stock of an area can lead to increased happiness for those who do live there. The issue is that it has been used only in low-income areas. While the exact effect is uncertain, most studies indicate that moving to higher-opportunity (read: wealthier and safer) areas has positive consequences for low-income families, and in particular on their children. The whole point of the LIHTC is to provide choice and ameliorate the discriminatory circumstances of one’s birth. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s decision, discriminatory policies like Texas’ will continue to be challengeable in court, and critically for future plaintiffs, whether or not the policy is intentionally discriminatory is now academic; all that matters is if it actually discriminates.
A silver lining to some of the horrific events of the past few years (Ferguson, the Baltimore riots, the Michael Brown shooting, etc.) is that light has been shined much more closely on our collective failure to integrate society, and in few places is this failure more obvious than in housing policy. Thankfully, steps are finally being taken in the right direction: soon after the Supreme Court decision came down, the Obama administration announced new rules requiring cities and towns to look for evidence of discriminatory housing and present a plan every three to five years on reducing segregation. This is a good start, but integration is still a long ways off. Everyone, from communities on up, will need to embrace it as a goal if anything substantive is going to change.
Note: the included picture is a screenshot of an incredible interactive map created by Dustin Cable at the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. I chose Chicago because it’s a very revealing map, but the entire country is available. You can access it here or read the Wired article about it here.
After working in Washington, D.C., for two years, Andrew Orlebeke (’10) is in graduate school in Seattle, Washington, studying public policy. In addition to public service, he has a passion for traveling and an abiding love of sports.