Oct 12, 2013

Supreme Court to Decide on Fair Housing Rule Potentially Crucial to Housing Discrimination Claims

The U.S Supreme Court is scheduled to hear arguments in a case that could potentially reverse decades of settled housing discrimination law.  The case deals with residents of a low-income neighborhood called The Gardens in Mount Holly, New Jersey. The residents sued the township when it bought and demolished homes in a predominately minority neighborhood.  Several years ago, the township adopted a controversial plan that called for the demolition of all of the existing homes in the township’s only predominantly African-American and Hispanic neighborhood. The town’s council voted to buy all the homes in the low-income neighborhood for existing market prices ranging from $32,000 to $49,000.  The plan was to replace the homes with 520 new homes ranging in price from $200,000 to $250,000. The prices are well beyond what the current residents could afford. Approximately 260 families already moved out. Seventy remain, including approximately 30 that are parties to the lawsuit.  
The main issue in the case is whether the Fair Housing Act requires minorities to prove intentional racial discrimination in sales, rentals, zoning or lending practices, or whether the policy has a "disparate impact".  The residents contend that any redevelopment of the neighborhood would affect Blacks and Hispanics more than Whites and is therefore discriminatory.  City officials on the other hand said they were trying to improve a blighted part of town and are not engaged in illegal discrimination.  The town argued that merely proving it displaced minority residents is not enough, and that the residents must prove that City officials who made the decision were motivated by a desire to discriminate.  However, a federal appellate court agreed with the former residents, and the town appealed to the Supreme Court.
All U.S Appellate Courts have ruled on this issue and have held that the Fair Housing Act allows for “disparate impact” claims. The Supreme Court will now decide this issue. A reversal of the appellate court will have will have negative affects to housing discrimination cases nationwide.  The disparate impact standard has been a very useful tool in the fight against discrimination to date. Such a theory of discrimination is needed because modern day discrimination is not as blatant as in the past.  By focusing on the impact of unfair housing practices, the disparate impact standard often helps screen out discrimination that is intentional, but subtle or concealed.  The theory also eliminates practices that may be neutral on their face but nevertheless extend the effects of prior racial discrimination.  If plaintiffs have to prove discriminatory intent, the majority of housing practices that disadvantage minorities will be left unchallenged.  As Florence Roisman, a fair housing scholar put it,  "If the court overturns disparate impact," It is going to gut the statute." Simply put, if the Supreme Court strikes down the disparate impact standard, it will essentially silence a weapon that has for over for over 40 years, helped to eradicate discrimination in housing.

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