Originally published in The Intercept on October 23, 2017.
A coalition of civil rights organizations filed a lawsuit on Monday against the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and its secretary, Ben Carson. The suit is aimed at stopping a move by Carson the civil rights groups say will only further racial and economic segregation.
A policy known as the Small Area Fair Market Rent rule was set to go into effect on January 1, 2018, after years of advocacy, research, and public debate. In August, however, HUD abruptly announced it would be delaying the rule’s implementation for two years, claiming that further study was needed.
Brian Sullivan, a HUD spokesperson, told The Intercept that while his office cannot comment on any pending litigation, the delay of the Small Area rule does not represent any change in agency policy. “I gather there are some who believe this is a change of policy, or that it might signal a change in policy, but there is no change in policy,” he said. Sullivan also referred to a blogpost HUD posted on August 25 reiterating this point, specifically that the delay was a decision “informed by research” and that waiting until next summer when the pilot’s final report is released will allow for more successful implementation.
More than 5 million people in 2.2 million households use federal housing choice vouchers — colloquially referred to as Section 8, referencing the statute that created the subsidies — to help afford rent on the private market. The subsidies, however, are based on metropolitan-wide rent formulas, meaning that many low-income families are often relegated into communities with few job opportunities, poor schools, and high crime. The rule change would have required — or will require — public housing authorities to calculate so-called fair market rents based on ZIP-codes instead.
While tweaking a rent subsidy formula sounds minor and technical, the policy could impact millions of low-income people, especially African-Americans, who represent a disproportionate number of voucher-holders.
“The delay of this rule will have a segregative effect, denying these primarily African-American families who would want to move out of their neighborhoods the chance to do so,” said Ajmel Quereshi, a senior counsel with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit. “This case is about more than just housing. Of course they hope to live in a higher-quality residences, but it’s really about people who want to move to better and safer neighborhoods but they can’t because of the value of their voucher. It’s about schools and transportation and doctor visits and grocery stores that people want to be able to access to support their families.”
One such voucher recipient is Crystal Carter, an African-American woman living in Hartford, Connecticut, and a plaintiff in the suit. Carter had been looking forward to January, so that she could finally move herself and her five children out of their low-income neighborhood into a safer, nearby suburb.
The Small Area Fair Market Rent rule would, in effect, make housing vouchers worth more in more affluent areas, and worth less in poorer communities. As it stands now, most voucher recipients like Carter can’t afford to move into nicer neighborhoods because their subsidy isn’t large enough to cover rent. Landlords in segregated neighborhoods can, in turn, price gouge their voucher-holding tenants, who have little choice but to pay up.
The lawsuit — brought by attorneys with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Public Citizen, and Relman, Dane and Colfax — argues that HUD’s failure to implement the Small Area rule violates the Administrative Procedures Act, the statute which governs how federal agencies propose and implement regulations. The attorneys have called on the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia to temporarily and permanently enjoin the suspension of the rule.
This lawsuit is the latest in a series filed over the past nine months against the Trump administration for violating the act. When Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency rescinded a rule requiring dental offices to reduce the amount of mercury they discharged into the environment, anadvocacy group sued, arguing that the EPA violated the Administrative Procedures Act by failing to provide sufficient notice or opportunity for public comment. (The EPA has since reinstated the rule.) When 19 Democratic state attorneys general sued the Department of Education in July forindefinitely delaying rules that would provide increased protection for student loan borrowers, they argued that the department violated the Administrative Procedures Act, again failing to give sufficient notice and time for comment.
“So much about this administration’s violation of norms is about pushing the envelope, seeing how much they can get away with before the courts step in,” said Megan Haberle, a Poverty Race and Research Action Council attorney involved with the new HUD lawsuit.
The new lawsuit was borne out of an earlier HUD case, filed in 2007 by the Inclusive Communities Project, a Texas-based fair housing organization. The group challenged HUD’s policy of setting a single fair market rent for the 12-county Dallas metropolitan region, alleging that its formula violated the Fair Housing Act by effectively steering black renters away from predominantly white areas, and confining them into poorer, segregated ones. The lawsuit was settled in 2010, with HUD agreeing to institute fair market rents at the ZIP-code level in Dallas. In 2014, researchers published an independent study of Dallas’s experiment with ZIP-code level rent subsidies, finding that the new policy enabled many low-income voucher holders to move into more affluent communities and at no net-cost to the government.
Fair housing advocates who wanted to see the Small Area rule expanded beyond Dallas kept up pressure on HUD to revamp its policies across the board. The federal housing agency eventually responded by launching a pilot study in 2012, testing the policy in five states. By 2016, HUD had collected enough data to determine that voucher recipients’ average neighborhood poverty level decreased after switching to Small Area Fair Market Rents and that the moves were relatively cost-effective.
On November 16, 2016, HUD published its final rule requiring 187 public housing authorities across 24 metropolitan regions to adopt Small Area Fair Market Rents. The metro regions — selected for their degree of voucher concentration and their housing vacancy rates — were given until January 1, 2018, to implement the new ZIP-code-level formula.
Advocates were incensed when the Trump administration pulled the plug a little over two months ago, without offering clear explanation why.
“HUD is required by law to go through a process that opens what it’s doing to public comment, to be transparent, and they’ve shirked that obligation very clearly,” said Haberle, the Poverty Race and Research Action Council attorney. “As far as is there a speculative rationale here even if HUD isn’t articulating it? No.”
Haberle emphasized that HUD’s rule drafting process was painstaking, beginning with the Dallas lawsuit, the pilot studies and their evaluations, and many stakeholder consultations thereafter. Moreover, four days after HUD announced it would be delaying the rule, it released its interim pilot report, finding that the Small Area rule was working largely as expected.
The Small Area rule has been opposed by housing industry groups such as the National Association of Home Builders, the National Apartment Association, and the National Multifamily Housing Council. The National Association of Home Builders applauded the Trump administration’s suspension of the rule, which they had urged Carson to rescind in a private June meeting.
Under the Fair Housing Act of 1968, HUD carries an affirmative obligation to reduce racial segregation in federal housing programs. As HUD made clear in 2015, this means it must take proactive steps to “overcome the legacy of segregation, unequal treatment, and historic lack of opportunity in housing.”
“Violations in every Administrative Procedures Act case sound so boring, but this lawsuit is significant not only because it challenges the way the Trump administration tries to break the law, but also because of what’s actually at stake for the people who were counting on access to these vouchers,” said Allison Zieve, an attorney with Public Citizen. “This will have a concrete effect on real people who were counting on this.”