I entered my second year of teaching in the Fair Housing Clinic at Howard University School of Law during the summer of 2020. As I prepared my lesson plans for the upcoming year, the world outside of my classroom fell apart. The high-profile killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery rocked the nation. From large metropolitan cities to the smallest hamlets, thousands of people—white, African American, and other people of color—took to the streets, protesting overt racial discrimination, inequity, and violence perpetrated against African Americans by the police.
As these events unfolded, I wondered what I could do as a practitioner and clinician to incorporate discussions about race, injustice, and poverty in my lesson plans for the year. To be perfectly honest, I struggled with how to best talk about the intersection of race and poverty in the area of housing justice considering current realities. How much should I discuss race in my lectures? How do I set proper boundaries to ensure a meaningful exchange of ideas among my students? How do I frame the discussion about overt and covert discrimination in ways that illustrate some of the barriers that our clients, who are mostly African American, face in their day-to-day lives? What do I want my students to learn and hopefully apply in their individual practices both now and in the future?
One would think that in teaching at one of the nation’s few historically Black law schools, discussions about racism and discrimination naturally flow from our curriculum. This is not the case. Criminal procedure and critical race theory classes are the exceptions to the absence of racial discussions. We must make conscious efforts to include these kinds of discussions in other courses, such as family, property, or contract law. These conversations enrich our students’ understanding about how law is made as well as the positive and negative impacts of overt and covert discriminatory policies in the lives of their family, friends, and neighbors.
In the Fair Housing Clinic, we cannot discuss our cases without recognizing the role that racial discrimination and segregation plays in creating the current housing inequalities in the District of Columbia. African American families face significant barriers in finding safe and affordable housing. In fact, many of D.C.’s extremely low-income renters residing east of the Anacostia River pay more than 50 percent of their incomes to rent and utilities. Claire Zippel, A Broken Foundation: Affordable Housing Crisis Threatens D.C.’s Lowest-Income Residents (Dec. 8, 2018). Policies such as restrictive covenants, “steering” potential buyers from Black neighborhoods, and racial discrimination by mortgage lenders prevent many families from obtaining affordable housing. Although these policies are now illegal for the most part, barriers continue to exist, such as restrictive zoning laws that prevent the construction of multifamily units in affluent neighborhoods. Further, the District of Columbia is one of the fastest gentrifying areas in the nation. Many of our clients and other D.C. residents are displaced and forced out of the D.C. metropolitan area due to their inability to find affordable housing. We must talk about these policies and the reasoning behind them in addition to the applicable statute or code so my students can best determine how to advocate effectively on their behalf.