By Melissa Rothstein, deputy director of the Equal Rights Center, and Megan K. Whyte, director of the Fair Housing Project at the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. This is cross-posted at The Equal Rights Center’s blog.
Fair Housing Month recently ended, and for most it was an opportunity to celebrate our country’s commitment to equal opportunity in housing for all people. Unfortunately, for some, it was instead another occasion for attacks on the crucial efforts to ensure enforcement of our country’s fair housing laws.
In one such example, Congress launched an investigation into why the City of St. Paul withdrew an appeal in the Supreme Court that had the potential to eviscerate the validity of disparate impact challenges under the Fair Housing Act (FHA), despite the rulings of eleven federal circuit courts of appeal that uniformly held that disparate impact claims are cognizable under the FHA. In another example, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney suggested that, if elected president, he would consider disbanding the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), an agency for which his father once served as Secretary.
These actions come on the heels of a disturbing trend by federal courts of imposing additional hurdles on fair housing plaintiffs. Even in the face of efforts to make it more difficult for plaintiffs to enforce their statutory rights, the continuing role of fair housing organizations in enforcing the provisions of the FHA cannot be overstated. Private fair housing organizations and other civil rights groups investigate two out of every three fair housing complaints filed across the country – and their ability to enforce fair housing violations is critical to the promise of equal housing opportunity for all. These organizations are able to conduct investigations efficiently and effectively with little of the bureaucracy and overhead costs that may be associated with governmental agencies, and to gain the trust of disenfranchised community members who may not feel comfortable lodging a complaint with a government entity.
Officials at HUD and DOJ – the federal agencies with authority to enforce the FHA – recognize the importance and value of private enforcement, as they lack the resources to effectively enforce the FHA on their own. As detailed in our recent American Constitution Society Issue Brief, Congress intended for private enforcement to be a key component of ensuring FHA compliance, and the 1988 FHA amendments were largely intended to amend the law’s enforcement mechanism so that, in Senator Kennedy’s words, it would no longer be “a toothless tiger.”