One of the more notable, though less noted decisions coming out of the U.S. Supreme Court in the past week was its ruling on June 25, 2015, to uphold the long-standing tenet that the Fair Housing Act prohibits policies that have a discriminatory impact, even if the discrimination was not intentional.
Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project was brought by a Texas group who challenged the state’s housing agency’s issuance of tax credits for the development of affordable housing. The group contested that the housing built through these credits was being concentrated in racially segregated, African-American and Latino neighborhoods in Dallas. The effect of the policy, they argued, has a “disparate impact” on minorities and thus violates the Fair Housing Act (FHA).
The FHA makes it illegal to refuse to sell, rent, “or otherwise make unavailable” housing to anyone because of race, national origin, gender, familial status, and disability. The 5-4 decision authored by Justice Kennedy emphasizes that a broad-reading of the statute is necessary to combat discriminatory conduct. For as the court noted, “Recognition of disparate-impact liability under the FHA also plays a role in uncovering discriminatory intent: It permits plaintiffs to counteract unconscious prejudices and disguised animus that escape easy classification as disparate treatment. In this way disparate-impact liability may prevent segregated housing patterns that might otherwise result from covert and illicit stereotyping.” (Texas Dept. of Hsg. v. Inclusive Communities, at 17-18).
Fair housing and anti-discrimination advocates are cheering the decision because strong and effective fair housing laws are vital to ensuring equal opportunity in housing. Governmental policies such as zoning laws or enforcement of housing codes may seem benign on their face, but have detrimental discriminatory impacts. The same holds true for private corporations such as developers, real estate professionals, and lenders – programs that seem neutral on paper may in fact further disenfranchise people.
This decision is a tremendous victory not only for those communities, but for all of us. Equal opportunity and freedom from discrimination benefits everyone.