Fair Housing Reigns Supreme?

Last week the Supreme Court strengthened one of the key protections of the 1968 Fair Housing Act with a 5-4 decision that upheld the right to challenge not only intentional discrimination in housing but also practices and policies that, regardless of intent, have a disproportionately negative impact on any group based on race, national origin, color, religion, sex, familial status, or disability.

In the case before the court, the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs was sued for reinforcing residential segregation through a pattern of disproportionately approving tax credits for development of low-income housing in minority neighborhoods while disproportionately withholding tax credits for such projects in predominantly Caucasian communities.  Although this selective approval pattern was not overtly discriminatory, its impact – like the impact of many policies that affect zoning, lending, and renter qualification – was to fortify established barriers to integration.  From the Court’s majority opinion, “These unlawful practices include zoning laws and other housing restrictions that function unfairly to exclude minorities from certain neighborhoods without any sufficient justification.”

Seattle Demographic Shifts

While passage of the Fair Housing Act broadened housing opportunities for people of color and religious minorities in King County, progress has been slow.  The racial and ethnic mixes of 2015 neighborhoods echo the history of deed restrictions (enacted between 1924 and 1948) that prohibited the sale, rental, or occupation of properties by racial and religious minorities.  A sample from a View Ridge (Seattle) covenant reads, “No tract shall be sold, conveyed, rented or leased, in whole or in part, to any Hebrew or to any person of the Malay, Ethiopian or any other negro or any Asiatic race; or any descendant of any thereof, except only employees in the domestic service on the premises of persons qualifies as herein provided as occupants.”

Although the Supreme Court ruled in 1948 that racial deed restrictions could not be legally enforced, discrimination by property owners and realtors was legal until passage of the Fair Housing Act 20 years later.  And the legacy of discrimination lives on in King County communities, perpetuated by unwritten social and cultural codes and practices (see chart comparing diversity in Seattle neighborhoods in 1960 and 2010).

Restrictive covenants were enacted in so many neighborhoods that the few unrestricted areas – primarily older parts of Seattle’s Central District and the International District – were widely recognized as enclaves where people of color could buy property and live in relative peace.  The proportion of properties covered by restrictive covenants was especially high in North Seattle, still one of the least diverse areas of the city, while the less restricted Central District better reflects the current population mix.  Although no longer legal, restrictive covenants live on in documents covering thousands of properties.  In 2006, Senate Bill 6169, which makes it easier for homeowners’ associations to remove discriminatory restrictions, became law in Washington.

By affirming the right to challenge housing policies and practices leading to disparities, the Supreme Court may have nudged King County neighborhoods a step closer to housing equity.

In the coming month, look for updates to Communities Count HOUSING indicators. Data and maps on cost-burdened households in 48 King County Health Planning Areas/neighborhoods can be found in King County’s Community Health Indicators (search for “housing cost burden” and click to download pdf. For more information on restrictive housing covenants in King County neighborhoods, see the University of Washington’s Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project.