An obscure federal policy requiring local governments to study housing segregation has become an unlikely boogeyman of the 2020 presidential election.
In recent months, President Donald Trump has trumpeted his administration’s elimination of an Obama-era rule he claims was “having a devastating impact” on suburban areas by forcing them to accept affordable housing. But five years after the regulation was implemented, it has had little or no effect on communities in Minnesota and nationwide, in part because the Trump administration halted enforcement several years ago.
Supporters of the rule argue it fulfilled a key promise made in the Fair Housing Act half a century ago and could have broken down racial and economic barriers in American metro areas. But that hinges on the details and interpretation of complex planning documents that were never produced — apart from a handful.
The 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, implemented by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), required local governments directly receiving certain federal funds to study patterns of segregation and commit to improving them.
Trump said the regulation will “abolish the suburbs,” and has used it as an attack line against his Democratic Party opponent, Joe Biden — who supports the policy. Some have criticized the president’s rhetoric about the rule, equating affordable housing with crime, as racist.
“I am happy to inform all of the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood,” the president tweeted in July. “Your housing prices will go up based on the market, and crime will go down. I have rescinded the Obama-Biden AFFH Rule. Enjoy!”
The administration formally rescinded the rule in July.
The rule stems from language in the 1968 Fair Housing Act, landmark legislation that barred housing discrimination under federal law. The act says executive agencies and departments must administer their housing and urban development programs “in a manner affirmatively to further the purposes” of the Fair Housing Act.
“ ‘Affirmatively Furthering’ was an effort to give effect to the command to racially integrate American metropolitan areas,” said University of Minnesota Prof. Myron Orfield, a fair housing expert who helped craft the HUD rule. “It means use your authority and power to integrate metropolitan areas.”
The 2015 rule required communities directly receiving HUD funding to analyze federal data showing where people of different races and economic classes live, as well as other data like the location of subsidized housing and neighborhood amenities. If the analysis showed segregated housing patterns or discriminatory policies, the community would make goals for improving them.
Communities that didn’t comply could risk losing HUD funding, which is often used to pay for housing and amenities for low-income people. In the Twin Cities region, several counties, large cities and some state agencies fell under its reporting requirements — but most suburbs do not receive HUD funds directly.
Jenny Schuetz, an authority on urban issues at the Brookings Institution, said the rule primarily would have affected larger cities — vs. smaller suburbs with tough zoning rules that some say create barriers to affordable housing.
“For those of us who would like HUD to lean a little bit harder on the suburbs to integrate, this is actually not an effective tool,” Schuetz said.
Others say the regulation could have had meaningful effects.
“If this was enforced, we wouldn’t see a continuation of low-income housing being super concentrated in poor areas,” said Gary Cunningham, a former Metropolitan Council member who oversaw a lot of the regional planning agency’s housing and equity work under the Mark Dayton administration. “It would really require the region to look at how affordable housing is distributed in the region.”
Critics of the rule say Washington shouldn’t be so involved in local decisions.
“I just really firmly believe the more bigger government gets involved, the worse things become,” said Anoka County Board Chairman Scott Schulte. “Washington, D.C., has no idea what zoning controls look like in Minnesota, nor should they. And for them trying to regulate that at a federal level I think produces a problem.”
Schulte bristled at the president’s tweets about low-income housing, however, noting that the average single-family home in his city of Coon Rapids is considered affordable housing.
“I don’t think that brings blight,” Schulte said. “I don’t think that brings problems that the president may be inferring.”
The rule did influence funding formulas for affordable housing that resulted in a boost for suburban projects, said Sue Watlov Phillips, executive director of the Metropolitan Interfaith Council on Affordable Housing (MICAH). MICAH has filed HUD complaints against state and local governments in recent years saying affordable housing is being improperly concentrated in certain parts of the region.
“[The rule] helped shape the direction that the metro community and the state were taking,” Watlov Phillips said. “And that did result in some additional creation of affordable housing in suburban communities.”
HUD Secretary Ben Carson pledged in the early days of the Trump administration that HUD would “reinterpret” the policy. Fewer than 50 of the roughly 1,200 jurisdictions that would have submitted plans did so before deadlines were delayed and the rule was rescinded.
None was from Minnesota. But governments receiving HUD funding in the Twin Cities have been collaborating to produce similar reports analyzing “impediments to fair housing” under federal requirements predating the 2015 rule. The latest report is now being finalized.
That 600-page document goes into detail about how likely a Hispanic person is to encounter a white neighbor in Minnetonka, for example, or how many Black people in St. Paul live in substandard or overly expensive housing. It lays out goals ranging from increasing affordable housing in “high opportunity” areas to raising the minimum wage in the metro area to $15 an hour.
Westchester a target
Trump and HUD have cited a long legal battle in New York’s Westchester County as an example of how the federal government can flex its muscles to reshape suburban neighborhoods.
That case began with a private lawsuit claiming the county was accepting federal funds without properly analyzing how local policies were perpetuating segregation. The Obama administration intervened in 2009, resulting in a settlement requiring the county to spend millions on affordable housing. HUD then withheld funding because the county would not admit that local zoning codes were contributing to the problem. In 2017, the Trump administration dropped the issue.
“I’ve been watching this for years in Westchester, coming from New York,” Trump said in July. “They want low-income housing built in a neighborhood. Well, I’m ending that rule.”
Affordable housing advocates have decried the elimination of the policy.
“The laws that have resulted in racist, discriminatory housing policies were done with intention and method and thought and strategy,” said Anne Mavity, executive director of the Minnesota Housing Partnership, a nonprofit focused on affordable housing. “And we need to have that same level of intention and method and thought and strategy to change them.”