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July 01, 2005

Race and Housing Rights in the United States: The View from Baltimore

by Philip Tegeler

The debate over the right to housing in the United States remains inseparable from our conflicts over the role of race in shaping metropolitan areas. Almost forty years ago, in March 1968, the Kerner Commission identified the ghetto as a driving force in American racial inequality, separating low-income families of color from the mainstream of economic opportunity and leading to the creation of a divided society. Since then, the concentration of poverty in racially isolated areas of American cities has increased, with harmful consequences for families and children in educational opportunity, employment, physical and mental health, and incarceration. Children in these communities are still systematically deprived of the same chance for upward mobility that is held out to many white Americans. In spite of a decline in poverty concentration between 1990 and 2000, there are signs that we are again moving in the direction of greater economic segregation.

The consequences of racial and economic separation from the mainstream have been well documented, perhaps most compellingly in Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton’s 1994 treatise, American Apartheid, which was required reading for senior staff at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in President Clinton’s first administration. The role of the federal government in creating and sustaining a system of separate and unequal housing has also been extensively documented by historians of urban policy, most recently in Sheryll Cashin’s compelling book , The Failures of Integration: How Race and Class Are Undermining the American Dream, published in 2004 . From the racially exclusionary federal housing subsidies of the post–World War II suburban home loan programs to the interstate housing program, urban renewal, and the high-rise public housing programs of the 1960s, the government has been—and remains today—deeply involved in the perpetuation of housing segregation.

Beginning with the 1966 case of Gautreaux v. Chicago Housing Authority & HUD, filed during Martin Luther King Jr.’s difficult fair-housing campaign in Chicago (and ultimately ruled on by the Supreme Court in Hills v. Gautreaux, 425 U.S. 284 (1976)), American courts have confronted this history in a series of housing desegregation cases stretching over three decades in Dallas, Boston, Yonkers, Pittsburgh, and a dozen other cities.

The Baltimore case of Thompson v. U.S. Dep’t of Housing and Urban Development, 348 F. Supp. 2d 398 (D.Md. 2005), decided in January 2005, is the latest of these federal civil rights lawsuits challenging segregation in public housing. Thompson was filed in 1994 by the Maryland American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of a class of African American public housing residents. Like several other public housing desegregation cases, the Thompson case was triggered by the demolition of a high-rise public housing development, with plans to relocate residents to replacement housing in neighborhoods with similar levels of segregation. As with many of the other cases, as part of the challenge to this policy of rebuilding the ghetto, the plaintiffs included a larger historical claim that the city, housing authority, and HUD acted over many decades to create a deeply segregated system of public housing, with project siting decisions influenced by community opposition in white neighborhoods.

The trial in Thompson, held over four weeks in December 2003, presented a detailed chronology of evidence on the history of public and assisted housing in Baltimore, beginning before Brown v. Board of Education and continuing into the early 1990s. Public housing residents also testified about their own efforts to find housing outside of high poverty areas and about the harms of segregation. The ACLU was assisted at trial by the Washington office of Jenner and Block and the Baltimore firm of Brown Goldstein and Levy. (The ACLU has also received pro bono assistance in the case from Crowell and Moring.)

The court’s decision faults HUD for failing, over the course of several decades, to promote housing choices for low-income minority public housing residents outside of higher poverty, segregated Baltimore neighborhoods. The court noted that, in contrast to the city and local housing authority, which it found had no power to develop housing outside the city, the federal government had a statutory obligation “to do ‘something more than simply refrain from discriminating,’” 348 F. Supp. 2d at 416, and that “[t]hrough regionalization, HUD had the practical power and leverage to accomplish desegregation . . . .” 348 F. Supp. 2d at 462. The court concluded,

It is high time that HUD live up to its statutory mandate to consider the effect of its policies on the racial and socio-economic composition of the surrounding area and thus consider regional approaches to promoting fair housing opportunities for African-American public housing residents in the Baltimore Region. This Court finds it no longer appropriate for HUD, as an institution with national jurisdiction, essentially to limit its consideration of desegregative programs for the Baltimore Region to methods of rearranging Baltimore’s public housing residents within the Baltimore City limits. 348 F. Supp. 2d at 463

The Baltimore case, which heads into remedy hearings this coming December, comes at an important point in the debate over the right to housing in the United States. Should that right be defined solely in terms of the need for a roof over one’s head, without regard to issues of location? Can we continue to justify building low-cost housing for families in neighborhoods that do not have meaningful access to employment, and where children are assigned to low-performing, poverty-concentrated schools?

The United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD), ratified (with reservations) by the United States in 1994 after being introduced in 1965, speaks directly to American housing segregation. CERD provides that signing countries “particularly condemn racial segregation and apartheid and undertake to prevent, prohibit and eradicate all practices of this nature in territories under their jurisdiction.” CERD further requires signing countries to “take effective measures to review governmental, national and local policies, and to amend, rescind or nullify any laws and regulations which have the effect of creating or perpetuating racial discrimination wherever it exists.”

These international racial justice standards must be considered as advocates work to incorporate an international human rights framework into our domestic housing and social rights agenda. The right to housing will not be fulfilled in this country without also providing true housing choice for low-income families outside of segregated areas, including housing opportunities located to ensure access to economic opportunity.

Stats: Race and Housing

Rate at which African Americans are denied mortgage and home improvement loans: twice that of white applicants

Home ownership rates for African Americans: almost 50 percent; for whites: about 75 percent

Average equity in homes owned by African Americans: $35,000; in those owned by whites: $64,200

Median net worth of African Americans: $6,100; of whites: $67,000

Source: National Urban League, available at