The residential segregation we see today is the result of decades of housing policy that benefited white home buyers to the exclusion of others. In such a highly segregated system and society, the rhetoric of freedom of choice does nothing to afford individuals actual choices.
A new rule proposed by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development could lead to more racial segregation. By emphasizing “fair housing choice,” this approach prioritizes individual choices rather than pushing systemic changes necessary to dismantle segregated housing. Instead the new rule aims to absolve officials of the responsibility for achieving this goal.
But history has shown that any attempt to promote fair housing that does not actively work to destroy deeply ingrained systems of residential segregation will fail. And research has shown time and again that segregated housing is detrimental to all in our society. The residential segregation we see today is the result of decades of housing policy that benefited white home buyers to the exclusion of others. In such a highly segregated system and society, the rhetoric of freedom of choice does nothing to afford individuals actual choices.
We have seen Housing Secretary Ben Carson’s playbook before. In 1954, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City declared its public housing projects desegregated, by simply removing racial designations of “white” and “Negro” from them. This colorblind “freedom of choice” plan was easy to declare, and it absolved local authorities of responsibility for integration.
Without any structural support for integration, however, segregation remained in place. Those few projects that saw any racial change at all quickly flipped from being all-white to having all-black residents. That’s because lower-class white Baltimoreans, accessing racially-biased programs including federally-insured home loans and GI Bill benefits, moved in droves to the suburbs.
New public housing projects, opened on an ostensibly desegregated basis, were primarily populated by black households. Simultaneously, the Housing Authority of Baltimore City blamed black families themselves for the lack of meaningful desegregation, claiming that black residents were uninterested in moving to white areas. The color line remained stubbornly in place, even absent formal racial designations — giving people a “choice” of where to live in public housing in still deeply segregated neighborhoods did nothing to address it. Even 30 years later, three particular housing projects in the majority-black city still had 70 to 80 percent white residents.
But federal officials at HUD understood back then that declaring free choice was not the same thing as making it so. In a precursor to the 1968 Fair Housing Act, the department determined that free choice housing policies, like the one in place in Baltimore, were allowing segregation to continue in public housing projects. New guidelines released in 1967 required local housing authorities to maintain system-wide waiting lists of applicants and assign tenants based on the order of application rather than allowing white applicants to hold out for an opening in a majority-white housing project. HUD explained in a memo to housing authorities that freedom of choice plans “did not afford freedom of choice in fact.”
Moreover, HUD explained, placing the burden of desegregation on individuals without acknowledging how long-standing patterns of segregation affected the ability of individuals to make choices “did not provide applicants with actual freedom of access to, or full availability of, housing in all projects and locations.” Indeed, HUD recognized that the long-standing history of segregated housing “was in itself a major obstacle to freedom of choice.”
In response to the policy changes, Baltimore housing officials reworked their plans. Still emphasizing choice, the housing authority skirted around the requirements. Instead of one wait list with applicants placed in projects as openings became available, Baltimore successfully lobbied to divide their housing projects into four geographic areas. In a highly-segregated city like Baltimore, geographic areas could — and did — serve as a proxy for race.
Baltimore’s officials were successful in this end run around HUD policy because of their appeals to “choice,” insisting that the policy as HUD originally envisioned would be an overreach into the lives of applicants which would force them to live in areas of the city that they did not prefer. In the face of this appeal to choice, HUD officials acquiesced to Baltimore’s policy changes and accepted the division of the wait list into geographic areas.
Baltimore’s plans also used the results of residential segregation, including the racialized geography of proximity to family, churches, jobs and “the familiar,” as reasons to justify continuing such segregation. Despite HUD’s attempted intervention, these new plans did as little to encourage integration as freedom of choice plans had done before. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, white public housing applicants could ensure placement in a white housing project by designating preference in the eastern group, where two projects had majority-white occupancy. If an applicant’s employment necessitated living in the southern portion of the city, they could likewise specify a preference for proximity to “the familiar” to stay at the top of the wait list until an opening occurred in that area’s majority-white project.
The idea that local housing officials needed to actively work to end residential segregation in all housing, public and private, became codified as law in the 1968 Fair Housing Act. Policymakers understood that simply removing the legal restraints of segregation, would not produce desegregated housing.
But despite this law, it was only in 2015 under the Obama administration that HUD codified reporting requirements that required jurisdictions across the country to provide an Assessment of Fair Housing, using data to report on local housing segregation and develop plans with concrete, actionable steps to support fair housing opportunity. This rule recognized that the assumption that people make free choices unconstrained by structural inequality and systemic prejudices ignores the reality of how decisions are actually made. For those reasons, the 1968 Fair Housing Act required not only an end to segregation, but affirmative supports for integration.
This 2015 rule defined affirmatively furthering fair housing as “taking meaningful actions that … address significant disparities in housing needs and in access to opportunity, replacing segregated living patterns with truly integrated and balanced living patterns.”
But now Carson has proposed a rule that would replace this definition. Rather than defining fair housing as a policy of active desegregation, the Trump administration emphasizes individual choice, even though we know that this is a policy dead-end. Now, the rule would focus on “advancing fair housing choice within the program participant’s control or influence.” The new rule also conflates desegregation with creating more affordable housing, replacing fair housing reporting and planning requirements with reports on the availability of affordable housing within a jurisdiction.
Affirmatively furthering fair housing was part of the 1968 Fair Housing Act because federal government officials at the time understood that without clear and sustained support for integration, the entrenched segregation in our communities will remain in place. The framework of “choice” will never be successful in dismantling our centuries-long systems of segregation. In Baltimore’s public housing projects, the removal of official segregation without actively promoting integration enabled an effectively segregated public housing system to remain even into the 21st century. HUD’s newly proposed rule will have the same success in ending housing discrimination as Baltimore’s policies had — none.
Sara Patenaude is an affordable housing researcher, developer and advocate based in Atlanta. She wrote this for The Washington Post.