Is Massachusetts violating the Fair Housing Act? A Supreme Court decision today may clarify that.
Massachusetts is a heavily segregated state. The Pioneer Valley (aka the Springfield Metro area, which encompasses Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin counties) was found to be the most segregated area in the nation by a University of Michigan research project in 2013 with respect to Latino people.
One only has to look at census figures from eastern Massachusetts to see that the pattern repeats there; the state is 75% “white alone”, 8% black, and 10% Latino. Suffolk county is 47% white alone, 25% black, and 21% Latino, yet within it, Winthrop is 89% white, 2% black, and 6% Latino. Norfolk county is 79% white alone, 7% black, 4% Latino, yet Cohasset is 96% white alone, 0.3% black, and 1.3% Latino; Dover is 86% white alone, 0.5% black, and 4% Latino.
It is obvious that there are no policies in Massachusetts that explicitly mandate segregation, however today the Supreme Court ruled that policies that segregate minorities in poor neighborhoods, even if they do so unintentionally, still violate the Fair Housing Act. This ruling piggybacks on a 2012 District Court opinion which ruled that Texas awarded federal housing tax credits in such a way that had a disparate racial impact.
Basically, the premise is that by awarding tax credits using a formula that created affordable housing only in low-income neighborhoods, this policy violated the Fair Housing Act because no affordable housing was built in higher-income neighborhoods. The policy simply cemented the segregation that had been in place for decades.
That sounds a lot like what is happening in Massachusetts, though the barriers are a bit more complex – they also include zoning. Since many communities do not have much, if any multi-family zoning, that prevents anyone from even proposing true affordable housing projects in many towns. Allowing senior housing to count towards the state’s “affordable housing goals” is another barrier, especially when it is coupled with a local resident preference to fill this housing when it is built. In other words, if you build “affordable” senior housing in a wealthy town and you give town residents first crack at it, that is a policy that promotes segregation.
After the 2012 Texas ruling, things changed in that state. Instead of building affordable housing solely in low-income neighborhoods and communities, housing was built “all across the Dallas metro area, including places where there is no affordable housing, in neighborhoods with good schools, that do not flood, have lower crime, and better access to jobs —for the first time opening up choices to families about where they live instead of continuing to concentrate almost all the affordable housing units in distressed and high crime South Dallas neighborhoods.” Gee, sounds like what we need here, doesn’t it?
Rick Perry was not happy with this, and appealed to the Supreme Court, and lo and behold, with a 5-4 decision, they ruled today that discrimination does not have to be explicit; if the policy has a discriminatory effect, the policy is discriminatory. After the 2012 ruling, Texas also enacted a policy which requires communities to put up its own money for tax credit development as a show of support – a policy which essentially allows communities to block affordable housing development. I believe Massachusetts may already have such a law in place.
Might this be the case that breaks Massachusetts segregation? Might our 40B wink-wink schemes (where developers simply threaten 40B to force compromise) violate the Fair Housing Act? Might even a law such as Proposition 2.5 be found to violate the Fair Housing Act because it aligns local incentives toward building expensive housing, not affordable housing?
Will anyone in this state try to move us in an inclusive direction? Or are the people with the juice all too happy in their 96% white, $700k housing communities, happy that they don’t have to even think of either poverty or racial issues?