For a decade of his life, James Robertson would wake up most weekdays and prepare himself for a daily work commute that included two buses and 21 miles of walking roundtrip. He never particularly enjoyed the marathon journey from his home in Detroit to his factory job and back, especially this year at the age of 56, when he was finally granted a respite from his near-daily slog.
But Robertson didn't have much of a choice. Jobs weren't easy to come by in Detroit, and moving closer to his employer in the predominantly white town of Rochester Hills wasn't an option. Robertson, who is black, made $10.55 an hour, not enough for a car and certainly short of what he'd need to live in a suburb where the average house is worth more than $200,000, and the average daily commute to and from that house is 26 minutes.
Robertson's luck turned in February, when the nation heard his story and responded by donating more than enough money to keep the gas tank full in the new Ford Taurus given to him by a local dealership. While Robertson's grueling routine came to a well-deserved end, the fact that he ever had to endure such punishment is the product of broader systemic failure.
Some have pointed to the issues of job migration, poor transportation infrastructure and crushing poverty. These surely played a significant part in Robertson's ordeal. But the lengths to which millions of other Americans like Robertson have to go to simply hold down a job are also a function of the lack of opportunity that typically accompanies the high levels of residential segregation seen in many communities across the United States -- particularly those with large minority populations near cities, like Robertson's North End neighborhood in Detroit.
Segregation creates disparities not only in terms of economic factors, like employment and income, but also in access to public transportation, high-performing schools and health care, as well as the overall quality of public health, safety and yes, commute times.
On Wednesday, the Department of Housing and Urban Development released a new rule designed to combat the persistent and expansive reach of segregation. It serves as HUD's guidelines on "Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing" (AFFH) under the Fair Housing Act of 1968, passed just days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Amid the Civil Rights movement, the Fair Housing Act was seen as a bold move to prohibit forms of explicit discrimination in housing. The law succeeded in stamping out many of the most overtly racist housing and lending policies that were commonplace during the Jim Crow era, and has since become a vital tool for tackling less obvious forms of discrimination. But the federal government admits that it hasn't adequately upheld one of the Fair Housing Act's most important mandates: to actively uproot segregation and promote the growth of integrated, balanced communities -- or in other words, to affirmatively further fair housing.
In one of the more glaring oversights, HUD was supposed to withhold federal housing grants from states, cities and towns that failed to comply with rules that compelled recipients to monitor and fight housing segregation. Instead, HUD effectively served as a rubber stamp, denying funds to communities that were in violation of the Fair Housing Act on just two occasions since the late 1960s, according to a 2012 ProPublica report.
In part due to these failures, residential segregation has to this day remained an entrenched feature of housing patterns across the United States. HUD is characterizing its new rule as a forceful re-commitment to the Fair Housing Act's directive on dismantling this potent form of inequity. The document outlines how cities and towns that want to receive grants need to study segregation and how these patterns affect various communities. The new rule also includes reporting standards for these HUD partners to communicate their plans on reducing residential segregation, as well as benchmarks they are expected to meet in order to receive money. HUD will also provide state and local housing agencies with comprehensive data on housing trends and residential demographics, which it says will allow them to make more informed policy decisions toward the goal of fair housing.
The Obama administration sees this as a necessary step to bridge the opportunity gap carved out by the racial and economic segregation still especially rampant in many less-wealthy neighborhoods with residents who are often predominantly people of color. In making the case for more aggressive action ahead of Wednesday's announcement, White House officials have regularly pointed to a recent Harvard University study that found children living in lower-poverty areas have a much higher chance of economic success over the course of their lifetime -- in some cases increasing a child's total lifetime earnings by as much as $300,000.
HUD Secretary Julián Castro spoke to this disparity in his announcement of the new rule.
“[T]oo many Americans find their dreams limited by where they come from, and a ZIP code should never determine a child’s future," he said in a statement. "This important step will give local leaders the tools they need to provide all Americans with access to safe, affordable housing in communities that are rich with opportunity.”
HUD first released its proposed rule in 2013, offering a 60-day public review period during which national civil rights and fair housing groups offered more than 1,000 comments. The 377-page document published Wednesday includes a host of their recommendations and concerns, as well as a slate of HUD initiatives meant to increase housing choice and encourage inclusive communities.
Diane Yentel, vice president of public policy and government affairs at Enterprise Community Partners, a nonprofit focused on affordable housing and community development, said the rule will also give residents more input in crafting the housing policies that will guide development and revitalization in their neighborhoods. Yentel is optimistic about many aspects of the AFFH rule, but she also said an ambitious policy of this nature likely won't be easy to implement.
"This will be challenging, especially as the local governments and HUD adjust to this new system," she told The Huffington Post. "But if it's structured and it's executed as it's intended to be, it's really going to result in an integration of fair housing planning into the community development planning that's already happening. And that's the goal of the rule, I think."
Other civil rights group applauded the new HUD rule, saying it speaks to a more fundamental issue that still afflicts the nation.
“Housing discrimination is the unfinished business of civil rights,” Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, told The Washington Post. “It goes right to the heart of our divide from one another. It goes right to the heart of whether you believe that African-American people’s lives matter, that you respect them, that you believe they can be your neighbors, that you want them to play with your children.”
Critics of the rule and of broader efforts by the federal government to proactively address the legacy of segregation, however, claim the federal government is pushing "social engineering" on American communities and seizing control of decisions that have traditionally been decided at the local level.
“HUD bureaucrats will be in a position to decide on their own whether your particular town meets their ideal of racial and income distribution,” Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation told the Los Angeles Times. “And if you don’t meet their ideal of that mix, you’re not going to get any money.”
It's also clear that HUD's new rule will continue to be controversial with Republican lawmakers who have been working to undercut federal efforts to foster more diverse communities, particularly in the suburbs.
“Today’s announced new AFFH regulation marks President Obama’s most aggressive attempt yet to force his utopian ideology on American communities disguised under the banner of ‘fairness.’ This new Washington mandate has nothing to do with race, as housing discrimination has been illegal for more than 40 years," said Rep. Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) in a statement. "This overreaching new regulation is an attempt to extort communities into giving up control of local zoning decisions and reengineer the makeup of our neighborhoods,”
Gosar has introduced legislation in Congress to defund HUD's plans on affirmatively furthering fair housing. While they've passed votes in the House, the measures have yet to be formally considered by the Senate.
HUD's announcement came less than two weeks after the Supreme Court upheld another piece of the Fair Housing Act that was seen by the government and housing organizations as an integral tool for combatting residential segregation. In a 5-4 ruling, justices upheld the constitutionality of disparate impact claims, which allow lawsuits to be brought against policies and practices that have discriminatory outcomes, even if there was no intent to discriminate.