WASHINGTON—Fifty years ago, just a week after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and cities went up in flames—President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act. For the first time, housing discrimination was illegal.
The law also did something else: It required cities to "affirmatively further fair housing"—that is, to actively eliminate segregation in their communities.
Civil rights advocates hoped the law would be the key to finally ending the extreme racial segregation around the country. But enforcement of the law was sporadic at best, and a half-century later, segregation remains deeply entrenched in the United States. In fact, some of the nation's most diverse cities—those with large non-white populations—are among the most segregated.
To remedy this, the Obama administration in 2015 approved stringent guidance that gave communities a blueprint for addressing racial segregation aggressively—and threatened the denial of millions of federal dollars if they failed to do so.
But in January, the Trump administration suspended the rule. Some cities and counties are proceeding with their desegregation plans, but the delay by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development could make things harder for them on several levels, said Thomas Silverstein, counsel for the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit formed in 1963 at the behest of President John F. Kennedy to combat racial discrimination.
Even if cities try to submit their plans to HUD, they won't receive feedback about how to improve them, he said. Without HUD oversight, it will be harder for cities to get community members involved in the planning process, or to get neighboring jurisdictions to cooperate with plans, he said.
"There is only so much that core cities can do if the suburbs choose not to take this process seriously," Silverstein said.
The latest to pledge progress is New York City, which in March announced that it would study patterns of segregation throughout its five boroughs and come up with a plan to combat it.
Chicago; Contra Costa County, Calif.; Dallas; and Los Angeles County say they're moving forward with their plans.
"Now is not the time to roll back on advancement," said Maria Torres-Springer, commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development. "These issues are too important for us not to take very decisive action."
Still, housing advocates say, even if cities go ahead with their desegregation plans, it's likely to be a long and drawn-out process. Some three years after President Barack Obama's missive, many of the cities are still just in the preliminary stages of their desegregation proposals, and they don't have concrete plans in place.
In a March hearing before a U.S. Senate committee, HUD Secretary Ben Carson faced pointed questioning from U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who wanted to know how delaying the rule would help end housing discrimination.
At the hearing, Carson said, "we try to create a fair environment for all people in all of our policies." He said the administration halted the rule because "we were petitioned by dozens and dozens of cities and municipalities to in fact delay because it cost between $100,000 and $800,000 to follow the regulations that were put in place. This is great if you have a lot of money." He had previously described the rule as an example of "government-engineered attempts to legislate racial equality" that amounted to "failed socialist experiments."
"We have gone backwards since the civil rights era," Warren, D-Mass., told him. "It is HUD's job to help end housing discrimination—that's what the law said. You said you would enforce these laws. You haven't, and I think that's the scandal that should get you fired."
In the late '60s and early '70s, then-HUD Secretary George Romney (father of Mitt Romney), saw the Fair Housing Act as a mandate for integration. So he denied grant requests from locales that he thought would have fostered race-based segregation. But President Richard Nixon shut down Romney's desegregation efforts.
That left a law without any teeth, according to Debby Goldberg, vice president of housing policy and special projects for the National Fair Housing Alliance, an advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. The law prohibited housing segregation, but it didn't provide cities and other jurisdictions with specifics about how to combat it, she said.
Cities didn't have to do much to meet HUD requirements beyond writing a report every few years analyzing impediments to achieving fair housing in the jurisdiction, Goldberg said.
"It was laughable," she said.
The Obama-era rule required that local governments consult with members of their community to assess fair housing, publicly report details of segregation and pockets of poverty, and provide detailed five-year plans on what they are going to do about it—or risk losing millions of dollars in HUD funding.
Housing advocates say the directive forced city and county officials to see how often public housing is concentrated in highly segregated, extremely poor neighborhoods with the worst performing schools and the highest exposure to environmental hazards.
And it gave them tools, such as an interactive map, to get the job done. "You can see disparities in ways that people haven't been conscious of," Goldberg said.
The new rule wasn't without its critics. Howard Husock, vice president for research and publications at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, said the Obama rule was "tone deaf," forcing communities to relocate low-income families into high-income areas, despite what those communities want.
"The risk you're taking is you're building new ghettos and isolating pockets of low-income people," Husock said.
In announcing the delay in January, HUD officials said cities receiving federal block grants needed "additional time and technical assistance" to complete the plans. They also said that in the meantime, they would not be reviewing the reports that some cities had submitted.
Even if the HUD rule survives, combating segregation is unlikely without the understanding that it isn't the result of individual prejudice or discrimination, said Richard Rothstein, a housing policy expert with the Economic Policy Institute and the author of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.
Rather, he said, it is the result of decades of policymaking by government at the local, state and federal levels.
Over the years, a number of cities and states have been sued and accused of either doing nothing to alleviate segregation or actively promoting it by disproportionately building affordable housing in poor, minority neighborhoods.
Other cities have tried to address segregation—and failed. Baltimore, for example, after being sued in 2005 over historic patterns of housing discrimination, started offering developers financial incentives to create affordable housing in affluent neighborhoods. But the programs had no takers, according to a 2015 report by The Baltimore Sun.
Since 2007, Chicago, a deeply segregated city, has required residential developers that receive city assistance to set aside some units for low-income families. But according to a January report by the Chicago Reader, city aldermen often block those developments in their wards. Or developers opt to pay a fee instead of building those low-income units.
Remedying segregation means reckoning with the reality of government-sanctioned, or de jure segregation, Rothstein said.
The HUD housing rule is "important as a prod, or a symbol, but it's a weak rule to begin with," Rothstein said, because it assumes that white communities aren't aware that they're segregated and want to do the right thing.
"There's no consensus that we need to desegregate," Rothstein said.
A city can be diverse—with a large minority population—without being integrated. To be integrated, sociologists say, cities must have people from different racial and ethnic groups living together and having equal access to opportunities.
Segregation comes at a cost for everyone, including whites, according to a March report by the Urban Institute and the Metropolitan Planning Council, a Chicago-based group. The study looked at segregation patterns in the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, between 1990 and 2010, and found that less-segregated communities have higher average incomes, better education and fewer homicides. Regions with lower segregation between whites and Latinos had higher life expectancy rates. And more blacks and whites attain college degrees in racially inclusive metro areas.
"A rising tide lifts all boats," said Mark Treskon, who coauthored the report.
But while segregation has declined somewhat over the years, integration within the United States remains elusive, according to a December report by the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington.
For example, despite significant gains by middle-class blacks since the 1970s, segregation continues to hurt them in terms of home values and health outcomes, sociologists say. For the most part, black and white families continue to live apart. Even affluent black families are more likely to live in poor neighborhoods than white families who earn the same or less.
Some in the black middle class "do want to live in areas where our grandmothers live; we want to stay in our local communities," said Chancela Al-Mansour, executive director of the Housing Rights Center, a Los Angeles-based civil rights organization that has worked on the city's desegregation plan. "For others, it's racism."
A February investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting found that denying conventional mortgage loans to blacks and Latinos continues at far higher rates than whites, something the report calls "modern-day redlining."
Although policing the banks normally falls to the federal government, the Trump administration in February eliminated the enforcement powers of a division of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that combats discrimination against minority borrowers.
The 2015 Obama housing rule staggered the deadlines for cities and counties to submit desegregation plans. So when the rule was suspended in January, some cities and counties were much further along in the process than others. New York and San Diego, for example, were in the beginning stages.
New York decided to move forward. But Erik Caldwell, San Diego's director of economic development, said he didn't see how the city could proceed with its plan—there was no way to submit it to HUD.
When asked whether anything prevented San Diego from going ahead with its plans, Caldwell said, "HUD is definitely saying, 'Do not do it.'" (The HUD website does instruct jurisdictions to hold off on completing desegregation plans, but does not specify what will happen if they complete them anyway.)
Instead, the city is working on an "analysis of impediment" report, which is what HUD used to require of cities. Caldwell said the city may incorporate elements of the 2015 housing rule, such as the interactive map, in its report.
He said the city, which is majority minority, doesn't fit the traditional mold of a segregated city like those east of the Mississippi River. Even historically Latino or African-American neighborhoods are diverse, because many other ethnic groups live there too, he said.
"That doesn't mean that you still don't have systemic problems in San Diego or communities with higher rates of poverty, unemployment and other socio-economic challenges," he said.
Los Angeles County officials completed their desegregation plan last month. (At HUD's request, they are calling it an analysis of impediment report, but they are incorporating more extensive elements required under the Obama-era rule.) The county—population 10 million—is one of the largest, and has some of the costliest housing, in the country.
The county surveyed thousands of residents about their communities and the barriers they faced. A lack of affordable housing was one of the main complaints, said Emilio Salas, Los Angeles County's deputy chief of housing and community development.
The county (separate from the city of Los Angeles and other county jurisdictions) will develop affordable housing in areas with small minority populations, creating 50 new units and overseeing the lease of up to 128 others over the next five years. With other state and local funding sources, the county hopes to fund as many as 4,795 units in that time, according to Salas. The county will also counsel households and property owners that allege violations of fair housing laws and create a homeowners fraud prevention program to prevent low-income buyers from being duped.
Developers are typically willing to build affordable housing, Salas said. The pushback tends to come from residents in affluent neighborhoods who take a "not in my backyard" approach. To counter that, he said, takes a "huge education process" to convince them that affordable housing developments can blend seamlessly into the neighborhood.
The city of Pomona, Calif., recently completed its segregation report. It found that segregation levels, while moderate, hadn't changed much since 1990 and that black, Asian and Latino residents tended to live in lower-income areas of the city. One factor contributing to segregation was landlords not taking federal Section 8 housing vouchers, the report found. Other factors: zoning laws, the location of affordable housing, lending discrimination and a lack of fair housing enforcement.
As part of a two-year plan, the city is focusing on increasing affordable housing stock, housing the homeless, and helping low-income renters cover security deposits.
The city also will provide first-time, lower-income homeowners with as much as $100,000 for a down payment, according to Beverly Johnson, the city's housing services manager. In some instances, down-payment assistance programs can combat segregation, a 2015 Xavier University study found.
Well-designed affordable housing programs are a cost-effective way to promote racial and class integration without affecting property values, crime rates or taxes, said Douglas Massey, a Princeton professor of sociology who co-authored "Climbing Mount Laurel: The Struggle for Affordable Housing and Social Mobility in an American Suburb."
What's more, Massey said, for poor families, the ability to settle in an integrated, advantaged neighborhood yields higher rates of employment, increased earnings, and improved health for adults, along with better education for children.
In pockets around the country, desegregation efforts are bearing fruit, housing advocates say.
Civil rights lawsuits filed against some cities resulted in new ways of integrating low-income families into middle-class neighborhoods, according to Rothstein. Lawsuits against the public housing authorities in Dallas and Baltimore resulted in programs that increased housing subsidies for Section 8 recipients to rent in higher-income neighborhoods, known as "high opportunity" neighborhoods.
Other remedies that have seen success are banning or revising zoning ordinances that prohibit multifamily units or allow single-family homes only on certain lots, according to Rothstein.
New Jersey and Massachusetts have "fair share requirements" to integrate low-income families into richer communities. And Montgomery County, Md., a suburb of Washington, requires developers to set aside some units for lower-income families in buildings of 20 or more units—even in the most exclusive, high-rent locales.
But to be effective, these methods need to be expanded nationwide, Rothstein said.
"It would be foolish to look for a single policy that's going to solve the problem," he said.