In 1962, President John F. Kennedy issued an executive order prohibiting federal agencies from continuing to promote housing segregation. In 1968, in the wake of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Congress passed and President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act, which made racial discrimination in the sale and rental of housing unlawful for private actors as well as government.
But the Fair Housing Act was inadequate to undo the damage our government had previously wrought. Patterns were set and have been difficult to reverse. The enormous black-white wealth gap, for example, responsible for so much of today’s racial inequality, is in large part a product of black exclusion from homes whose appreciation generated substantial equity for white working-class families with F.H.A. and V.A. mortgages that propelled them into the middle class.
Even if federal, state and local officials, along with banks, insurance companies and real estate brokers, no longer intend to discriminate by race, their policies can sometimes have that effect, reinforcing and perpetuating segregation. Since the very first days of the Fair Housing Act, all 11 of the federal appeals courts that have considered the question — and, more recently, the Supreme Court, in Texas v. Inclusive Communities Project, have said the act prohibits not only intentional segregation, but also policies and practices whose effect is to discriminate for no defensible reason, even if there is no evidence of a racial motive. Lawyers describe such actions as having a “disparate impact” on minorities.
Now, however, the Trump administration is about to put into effect procedures to make it virtually impossible to prove disparate impact, no matter how egregious a discriminatory policy or practice may be.
This fall, reporters at Syracuse.com demonstrated that homeowners in low-income, predominantly minority neighborhoods in Syracuse have been paying higher property taxes than they lawfully should. The cause of this “disparate impact” is Syracuse’s unlawful failure, since 1996, to conduct an up-to-date citywide property reassessment. Over the next decades, market values of homes in white neighborhoods have risen much more than market values of homes in black ones. As a result, homeowners in white neighborhoods have tax assessments that are too low compared with the value of their homes, so these homeowners pay a smaller share of the total city tax bill than they should. Homeowners in low-income neighborhoods, it follows, are paying a higher share than they should.