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Overlooked ruling on Fair Housing Act deserves applause

A U.S. Supreme Court decision on housing discrimination was overshadowed but provided important protections.

For much of the 20th Century, home loan processes, local ordinances, state laws and everyday practices ensured that minorities and the poor were kept in certain neighborhoods.
REUTERS/Rick Wilking

The following is an editorial from the Mankato Free Press.

Hidden among the major decisions the Supreme Court issued late last week on gay marriage and Obamacare was another important ruling.

But the impact of Thursday’s Fair Housing Act decision is significant and will be long lasting in helping to prevent housing discrimination and segregation.

The idea of segregation or even discrimination in housing today may seem unlikely if not impossible to many. After all, the The Fair Housing Act of 1968 and a host of protections and programs to encourage low income housing and forbid discrimination have long been in place.

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But not all discrimination or segregation is obvious or even intentional — and that’s what the Supreme Court ruling, which arose out of a Texas case, focused on.

For much of the 20th century, racial segregation was obvious and systemic. Home loan processes, local ordinances, state laws and everyday practices ensured that minorities and the poor were kept in certain neighborhoods. Even after the Housing Act became law, discrimination continued, often because of banking practices and other biases built into the system.

That’s why the courts over the years expanded the Housing Act to not just cover overt discrimination but “discriminatory outcomes,” even if they weren’t intended. The policy, known as “disparate impact,” made practices by financial institutions, government programs or other institutions illegal if they resulted in housing discrimination, no matter the intent.

The case before the court challenged whether groups could use “disparate impact” lawsuits to fight patterns of housing discrimination. The Obama administration and housing advocates argued for retaining the “disparate impact” policy.

Most court observers, noting recent court rulings that restricted affirmative action and other anti-discrimination policies, were surprised when the court ruled 5-4 that the Fair Housing Act does prevent more than just intentional discrimination in the housing market. The court said the law can also prohibit policies, even unintentional that disproportionately harm minorities and other protected groups.

But the court was also clear that that does not mean that “disparate impact” claims arise just because statistical disparities appear along racial lines in housing. The court said it must be clear that housing policies caused that disparity, and that those policies don’t serve another valid goal.

The ruling is a good one, ensuring that efforts to end housing discrimination and segregation continue.

Reprinted with permission.


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