One More Step Toward Fair Housing?

A new federal rule that could help reduce segregation is waiting for White House approval. If the administration supports it, the rule would confirm that housing practices – including zoning decisions – that are facially neutral but discriminatory in effect violate the federal Fair Housing Act. Congressional Republicans oppose the proposal, as the Daily Kos reported in June, and used an appropriations bill to prohibit HUD from putting it into operation. Whether the federal rule gets the go-ahead or not, I hope that Massachusetts will adopt a similar measure to strengthen our state’s anti-discrimination law.

So what is disparate impact? The term describes cases where the plaintiff does not have to prove that the defendant intended to discriminate. It applies where an action that is neutral on its face has the effect of denying a racial or ethnic group its right to equal housing opportunity or of creating, perpetuating, or increasing racial segregation. Disparate impact is at the center of the Mount Holly case, which may go to the Supreme Court of the United States.  Last year the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) drafted a rule that would “establish uniform standards for determining when a housing practice with a discriminatory effect violates the Fair Housing Act” but it’s not clear whether the rule will come into effect before the Supreme Court renders its decision in Mount Holly.

Readers who followed the Lyman Terrace case, in which I represented the tenants, will know that our key claim was this: demolition of Lyman Terrace would have a disparate impact on Hispanic/Latino residents. That was the basis for commencing the action in the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD), as opposed to Housing Court.

Que Viva Lyman Terrace

Nobody was suggesting that the housing authority or city officials were intentionally discriminating against Hispanic/Latino residents. But the effect of their decision, I argued, was that in a city that lacks enough affordable housing, demolishing the 167 units at Lyman Terrace would force the complex’s residents, who are overwhelmingly Hispanic/Latino, out of Holyoke. So the class-action complaint asked the MCAD to use its power under Section 5 of the state’s anti-discrimination statute, Chapter 151B, and request an injunction from the Superior Court prohibiting the housing authority from moving ahead with demolition.

The housing authority had applied to HUD for permission to demolish Lyman Terrace, initially with the support of the City. Before the MCAD case even moved to the investigatory stage, Mayor Alex Morse withdrew the City’s support for the housing authority’s HUD application pending a more thorough public review of the options. With no need for an injunction, the tenants withdrew the case without prejudice (meaning they can revive it if necessary). Because of the mayor’s thoughtful and courageous decision, I did not need to persuade the MCAD that demolition would violate the state’s equivalent of the Fair Housing Act. I am confident that the precedents weighed in our favor, but the case would have been more straightforward if the state statute or regulations were clearer.

Now that we have some breathing space, I believe the MCAD should revise its regulations – or ask the Legislature to amend the statute – to confirm that housing practices that have a disparate impact do, in fact, violate Chapter 151B. Certainty is a valuable asset in many areas of law, particularly where the potential litigants have limited resources. It should not fall to low-income tenants to bear the burden of establishing that decisions by Massachusetts lessors (private and public) that have a disparate impact on communities of color are unlawful. Surely our legislators and state agencies can do that.