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Let’s improve the fair housing process, not abandon it

Recently, HUD Secretary Dr. Ben Carson stated his intention to reinterpret the department’s rule defining the obligation to affirmatively further fair housing. That statement rings alarm bells for many housers, in part because of his 2015 op-ed characterizing the proposal as “social engineering” likely to fail. However, there is potential to improve HUD’s fair housing rule, which would be a far better outcome than the outright repeal some congressional Republicans are calling for.

HUD’s 2015 rule implementing the Fair Housing Act of 1968 is a planning exercise, primarily. It requires states and localities receiving HUD grants to examine patterns of housing segregation, the sources of that segregation and propose improvements they will pursue. HUD provides data and a process to help by way of a creation of the assessment of fair housing (the output of the five-year review), and the department encourages states and localities to include their own data too. HUD doesn’t mandate particular actions, but rather gives states and localities the tools to improve their own housing policies in ways that work for their communities.

There are certainly legitimate complaints about HUD’s fair housing enforcement. It shouldn’t get in the way of developing new affordable housing, nor should it add significant costs to housing development or operation. The department should encourage a regulatory culture that we often find at the state level, where regulators aim to help development occur both smoothly and with the right qualities: desirable, affordable homes in places of opportunity.

HUD’s easiest path to improvement is through the rule. The department could use the federal notice and comment process to solicit suggestions based on the first cycle of assessments of fair housing and propose improvements to the regulation. It can’t simply repeal the rule without notice and comment, nor should it, especially since the Supreme Court recently opined on the importance of fair housing law. Legislative changes to the Fair Housing Act seem unwise, especially since this is an issue of calibrating regulation, not a time to change our national commitment to end discrimination and segregation in housing.

When it comes to income, lives and potential, segregated housing is costly, and not just to those who live in it, but to entire communities as well. The local, state and federal policies that led to segregated housing still exist in many places. Letting those policies go unexamined would just be bad governance, so it behooves housing stakeholders, community members and HUD to ensure there is an effective process for reviewing and changing housing policies.

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