Supreme Court upholds Fair Housing Act

A decision split by one vote leads the Supreme Court to end a seven-year long battle on low-income housing in Texas.  

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Eliza Shirazi of Washington, a 'college associate' with Fox Business, runs to report the Supreme Court opinions outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, Thursday June 25, 2015.

About 62,000 people joined the live Supreme Court blog online today as the eagerly awaited decision in the case Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc. was announced.

In a move that is widely being viewed as a victory for civil rights groups, the Supreme Court voted to uphold the ruling of the Appellate Court, finding that discriminatory housing lawsuits can be based on "disparate-impact claims” under the Fair Housing Act (FHA) of 1968. Disparate-claims show discrimination based on the effect of the policy rather than its intent. The Department of Housing and Urban Development under the Obama Administration, which administers the FHA, formalized its own ability to allow for these disparate-impact claims in 2013.  

The decision was split by a 5-4 vote, with Justice Anthony Kennedy delivering the opinion of the court.

Justice Samuel Alito filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, Justice Antonin Scalia, and Justice Clarence Thomas (who filed a separate dissenting opinion as well).  

“The Court acknowledges the Fair Housing Act’s continuing role in moving the Nation toward a more integrated society,” wrote Justice Kennedy in the majority opinion.  

The question initially facing the court was centered on “where housing for low-income persons should be constructed in Dallas, Texas,” the choice being between the inner city or the suburbs. Developers receive tax credits to build low-income housing, and the credits are distributed by state agencies. In the State of Texas, the credits are distributed by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs.

The basis of the argument made by The Inclusive Communities Project, Inc., a non-profit organization, is that the “disparate-impact claim” is applicable to the Fair Housing Act. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals found that the "disparate-impact claims are cognizable under the FHA," reversing the decision of the lower court. The Supreme Court upheld the decision of the appellate court.

The non-profit is an organization that “works for the creation and maintenance of thriving racially and economically inclusive communities.” The group contended that the state’s allocation of tax credits continued segregation by granting a disproportionate number of credits to predominantly black, inner-city areas and relatively fewer credits in largely white-suburban locations.

The case began in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas. The evidence presented to the District Court by the Inclusive Communities Project showed that in a nine-year period, beginning in 1999 the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs approved almost half of proposed tax credits for low-income, non-elderly housing in locations with less than ten percent Caucasian populations but only approved 37.4% of proposed units for the same type of housing in areas with 90 percent or more Caucasians living in the area. Additionally, over 90 percent of the low-income housing units in Dallas were located in areas with less than 50 percent Caucasian residents.

With this evidence, the District Court determined that the tax-credit granting department for low-income housing in Texas needed to rebut the evidence presented by the non-profit organization, and found that department unable to do so. The court subsequently ordered that the housing department remedy the situation.

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, located in New Orleans, determined that disparate-impact claims could be recognized under the Fair Housing Act, but the burden that the District Court placed on the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs to find an alternative for less discriminatory practices of housing was improper. The Supreme Court affirmed this ruling Thursday. 

Black-white segregation has declined from above 75 percent to below 55 percent from 1970 to 2010 in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. However, the metroplex ranks 7th in metropolitan areas that have the highest levels of income segregation according to the Martin Prosperity Institute report issued this past February. The institute is part of the University of Toronto’s Rotham School of Management and aims “to inform the broader conversation about shared and sustainable property” according to the university’s website. 

In this light, Justice Kennedy cautioned that “Much progress remains to be made in our Nation’s continuing struggle against racial isolation.”

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