Intent vs. Impact in the Fair Housing Act

Yesterday, we stumbled across this list of the “Six Supreme Court Cases to Watch this Term.” On it are the usual suspects: abortion rights (twice!), affirmative action, campaign finance reform, separation of church and state…and…

The right to Fair Housing! The case, Township of Mount Holly v. Mount Holly Gardens Citizens in Action, is bringing the Fair Housing Act – passed in 1968, in the wake of MLK’s assassination – to the forefront once again. At issue is whether the Fair Housing Act requires people of color to prove intentional racial discrimination in sales, rentals, zoning or lending practices, or whether a policy’s “disparate impact” is enough to make it illegal.

You may never have heard of Mount Holly, NJ. It’s a small town of about 10,000 people that is just across the river from Philadelphia. Its mostly White (65%) with a sizable minority of Blacks and Latinos (34%)  according to US Census Data from 2010.

From the USA Today:

“At the center of the case is a 30-acre neighborhood outside Philadelphia of two-story, attached row houses called The Gardens that is blighted and overrun by crime. In 2000, about 1,600 people lived in the neighborhood, about two-thirds of whom were black or Hispanic. Most household incomes were far below the town’s $43,000 median.

Since 2002, Mount Holly officials have sought to demolish the homes and replace them with 520 mostly market-priced apartments and townhomes; 56 would be reserved for Gardens residents.”

The case claims that the city is openly displacing nearly two thousand people. 260 families have folded under the pressure – not to mention city-sponsored financial incentive – and left their homes. But 70 courageous families rightfully remain in their homes.

A group called Mount Holly Gardens Citizens in Action have sued the city, arguing that the redevelopment and subsequent relocation is illegal according to the Fair Housing Act. The city argues that just because it disproportionately affects people of color, it does not mean that that displacement is racial discrimination.

Ah, yes the age old question of intent vs. impact.

For the past forty years, the answer always fell on the “impact” side of things. Lower courts and the Department of Housing and Urban Development have interpreted the Fair Housing Act that way over and over again in the past. But things are looking different since the Supreme Court struck down the key provision the Voting Rights Act of 1965 earlier this year. If the Mount Holly case goes the wrong way, it could open the door to loads of problems in New York City.

Not surprisingly, USA Today lists “developers, bankers, insurers” as supporters of the displacement. As interests groups that favor profit over people, we have seen them systematically displace people of color in all boroughs by exploiting loopholes to raise rents and evict tenants.

All we can do now is wait for the oral arguments – happening within six months – and hope that the Supreme Court sticks with the precedent of the past fifty years.


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