Complaint Filed w/ Fair Housing Feds Alleges That Twin Cities' Policies Limit Affordable Housing Developments In "High-Opportunity, Majority-White Communities" & Steer Them To "Low-Opportunity, High-Poverty" 'Hoods In Violation Of Fair Housing, Civil Rights Acts; Advocates Want HUD To Squeeze Municipalities, Threatening To Stiff Them Out Of Ten$ Of Million$ In Federal Community Development Money Unless Policies Change
- A civil rights attorney based in Washington, D.C., thinks he has the method for forcing changes in how and where St. Paul and Minneapolis locate low-income housing.
Michael Allen did not file a lawsuit against the cities and their joint Housing Finance Board. Instead, he filed a complaint with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development that, if successful, could put tens of millions of dollars in block grant and other federal poverty grants at risk.
That’s not the result that Allen and the local complainants — the Metropolitan Interfaith Council on Affordable Housing and three Minneapolis neighborhood organizations — necessarily want. Rather, the groups bringing the complaint want the two cities to stop over-concentrating low-income housing in already impoverished neighborhoods. Doing so, even while assuring the federal government that they are not, is in violation of both the federal Civil Rights Act and the Fair Housing Act, the complaint says.
Asking HUD to investigate
The complaint, which was filed on March 30, alleges that policies in both cities limit “the development of affordable housing in high-opportunity, majority-white communities” and instead steer such units to “low-opportunity, high-poverty communities, furthering racial and ethnic segregation.”
According to the complaint, people of color are significantly more likely than whites to rent homes and significantly more likely to need affordable rental housing. Concentrating such housing in segregated areas has diminished the opportunities for members of those communities “to live in stable, integrated neighborhoods; by undermining the ability of public schools to remain integrated.”
The money at issue is substantial. Minneapolis received more than $36 million from HUD in 2012 and nearly $23 million in 2013, the complaint estimates. St. Paul received more than $20 million from HUD in 2012 and $12.5 million in 2013. The complaint asks HUD to investigate. If the federal agency find the cities in violation, it should require them to follow civil rights and fair housing laws or risk losing future federal funds, the complaint says.
“We hope it doesn’t get to the point where money is cut off,” Allen said. “They serve a lot of low-income people. But the price of admission is complying with civil rights requirements.” Allen says the complaint could bring a response from HUD in a few months.
New strategy to push local agencies
Allen said last week that the complaint process is a relatively new strategy to get HUD to push change on local agencies. Federal law has long required recipients of federal housing and community development money to certify that they are following the law. For years, Allen said, local governments assumed HUD would never challenge the validity of that certification. As a result, it became easier to put housing where it would be least resisted and not draw opposition from NIMBYs, he said.
That changed when civil rights attorneys like himself began challenging the certifications. In a challenge he brought against Westchester County in New York, Allen successfully argued that the county had falsely claimed it was meeting federal law. That led HUD to reach a settlement with the county that required it to build hundreds of low-income units in the whitest areas of the county and market them to people of color. Block grant money has been withheld when the county did not deliver on its promises.
Since that challenge, Allen said, HUD has been more assertive in making sure certifications for state and local governments across the county are accurate and that governments do what they’re supposed to do, which is to “affirmatively further fair housing.”
“It woke HUD and others up a little bit,” he said. “I’d like to think we showed HUD how it could do what it should have been doing all along.”
Allen said the purpose of such challenges isn’t to relocate all residents of low-income neighborhoods to higher-income areas. He said the purpose is to give residents a choice. Governments should both attempt to build up struggling neighborhoods and “give people a choice to get to places where streets are already safe and schools are already good.”
“Twenty years ago, the Twin Cities was one of the most progressive in providing a balance between those two. Those of us in the rest of the country were salivating to get some of what the Twin Cities had,” Allen said. That has changed, and now the region is “pretty dramatically segregated.”
“The Twin Cities got it right, and then it got it wrong,” Allen said.