The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has two key missions: promoting housing opportunities and ending discrimination that undermines those opportunities. And these goals have withstood the test of time as core principles through Republican and Democratic administrations alike.
With that history, it makes no sense that HUD Secretary Ben Carson is considering replacing explicit anti-discrimination language in HUD’s mission statement with only a vague reference to fairness. It’s like a police department promising to serve but not protect. Both are needed.
The revised mission statement, still in draft form, would strike the powerful words to “build inclusive communities free from discrimination” in favor of the weaker phrase “to ensure Americans have access to fair, affordable housing and opportunities to achieve self-sufficiency, thereby strengthening our communities and nation.” The message many civil rights and housing groups are drawing is that HUD will step away from its role of opposing bias.
In a memo to employees, Carson promised to enforce fair housing laws even though the proposed mission statement doesn’t say that directly. A memo is nice, but the mission statement is more than symbolic. Mission statements matter because they signal priorities inside and outside of an organization, tell the world what the organization will and won’t do, and affect budget resources. If enforcement isn’t a stated goal, then it will fall down the priority list, without the dollars needed to fight abuses.
Other administrations haven’t had a problem with keeping anti-discrimination language front and center, and neither should this administration. In 2003, George W. Bush’s HUD crafted a sweeping mission statement that promised support for the homeless, the elderly, people with disabilities or AIDS, and increased minority homeownership. But it reaffirmed a promise to enforce the nation’s fair housing laws, too. Likewise, in 2010, the Obama administration called for protecting consumers, improving the quality of life, and building “inclusive and sustainable communities free from discrimination.”
It is distressing that Carson and President Donald Trump, who was once sued for discriminating against minorities attempting to rent apartments in his family’s New York City buildings, would be so tone-deaf. HUD was a response to a disgusting national history of credit bias, redlining, restrictive covenants, and other forms of discrimination that perpetuated racially segregated neighborhoods and diminished economic opportunities. While progress has been made since the 1960s, housing bias exists in subtle forms that damage the dreams of those who have a right to expect equal treatment under the law.
Carson, however, continues to send conflicting signals. The department has tried to back away from existing programs to challenge exclusionary zoning rules, and Carson has dismissed federal efforts to desegregate neighborhoods as “social engineering.” His solution: specialized centers to promote self-sufficiency, train people in character, leadership, educational advancement and economic empowerment.
Empowering people to succeed is important, but it is not a substitute for a vigorous and unambiguous commitment to enforce housing laws.
A housing watchdog that doesn’t bark or bite isn’t a watchdog.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS