Public Housing at the Summit: HUD Must Reverse Its Own History of Segregation

By Thomas J. Henderson, National Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights

At the core of the struggle to achieve truly fair housing opportunities is not merely what the federal government can do to enforce anti-discrimination laws against others, but what the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Justice Department, the Agriculture Department, the banking regulators, and other federal agencies can and must do to reverse their own long history of creating segregation and inequality.

The too little known and much suppressed truth of our history is that the federal government has been the greatest engine of racial segregation and deprivation in our housing markets and our communities. That truth and the yet unfulfilled promise of the Constitution require that we begin in earnest a comprehensive and systematic effort to actively dismantle the results of more than 50 years of federal policy directed at dividing our nation's peoples and depriving those of us with the least of the resources and opportunities necessary to build more fulfilling lives and to share fully in the life and work of the nation.

Although the history of federal policy in this area is too lengthy and complex to recite here, it is well established that, beginning in the 1930's, building on the Jim Crow laws of the South and the equally, if not more effective, segregative practices of the North, the federal government established housing, lending and redevelopment policies to create and exacerbate residential segregation.

Public housing was established on a racially segregated basis. Sites for public housing projects were selected so they would confine people of color to particular communities and the occupancy of projects was largely segregated. Indeed, a bureaucracy was established for this purpose--the Racial Relations branch of the Housing and Home Finance Agency.

Public housing and urban redevelopment programs were often purposely designed and implemented in a manner to increase segregation in the private housing market, by destroying integrated neighborhoods and relocating people to more segregated communities or de jure segregated public housing projects.

Through its mortgage underwriting practices and its broader influence on the lending industry, the FHA and other federal agencies stimulated suburban growth, but ensured that these rapidly growing communities would exclude people of color, and at the same time, choked off investment and home ownership opportunities in the segregated communities to which minorities were confined.

All of these practices - and their results - were carefully engineered through federal policy and an elaborate regulatory structure and bureaucratic process, reaching throughout the federal government, to state and local governments and virtually all aspects of private enterprise affecting the housing market - housing and redevelopment authorities, planning agencies, builders, lenders and developers.

Nor can this pervasive pattern of discrimination and debilitation be relegated to some distant past. The federal government and particularly HUD, has perpetuated many of these policies and practices to the present, has failed to adopt regulations to reverse these practices, has failed to enforce anti-discrimination laws with respect to those it funds and regulates and, since 1968, has failed to give meaning to the obligation to, or see that the operation of its programs and those it funds, "affirmatively further fair housing."

Secretary Cisneros' leadership and recognition of the federal government's role in segregating our housing is therefore particularly significant because, with exception of a brief period under the Administration of former Secretary Pierce (following the finding of HUD's liability for public housing segregation in East Texas), HUD and the Justice Department have denied such a role. The continuous history of federal housing segregation policy compels that we dismantle this ingrained structure.

Editors Note: The Advocate carries the text of Tom Henderson, who was one of 22 ten minute speakers at the final Summit session Saturday morning.  Conference planners did not heed pleas to put public housing desegregation on the agenda as a specific topic.  HUD Assistant Secretary for Public and Indian Housing, Joe Shuildiner, was not on the summit agenda.