WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump has taken aim at an Obama-era program intended to eliminate racial housing disparities in the suburbs, a move proponents of the policy see as an attempt to shore up his sagging support among white suburban voters by stoking racial division.
In a Twitter post late Tuesday, Trump announced that he was considering the elimination of a 2015 initiative known as Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, which requires localities to identify and address patterns of racial segregation outlawed under the Fair Housing Act of 1968 by creating detailed corrective plans.
“At the request of many great Americans who live in the Suburbs, and others, I am studying the AFFH housing regulation that is having a devastating impact on these once thriving Suburban areas,” he wrote, adding, “Not fair to homeowners, I may END!”
The tweet came just a day after Trump posted a video showing a pair of angry white homeowners pointing an assault rifle and pistol in the direction of chanting protesters walking past their house in St. Louis — part of a barrage of footage on social media capturing white homeowners confronting Black bystanders, often their neighbors, for simply standing on their streets.
Officials at the Department of Housing and Urban Development were puzzled by the timing of Trump’s tweet; the housing rule has been in limbo since Obama left office, tied up by litigation, lengthy rule-making and exemption requests by local officials.
In January, HUD posted a notice saying it was considering weakening the original regulation by factoring in “the unique needs and difficulties faced by individual jurisdictions” in complying with a 92-item questionnaire that must be completed to obtain funding from the department.
Trump’s claim that he might end the housing initiative was a reference to the January proposal, not the announcement of a new policy, a White House spokesman said.
The process may not have changed, but there has been a significant shift in political sentiment prompted by the president’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Trump and his campaign team, already concerned about his weakness in battleground states, have become increasingly alarmed by internal polling showing a softening of support among suburban voters, especially women without college degrees, according to two Republican officials close to the campaign.
They said Trump was also seeking to highlight a set of proposals, put forward by the campaign of his presumptive Democratic rival, Joe Biden, to reassess zoning laws relating to single-family homes, a move some critics argue could turn suburbs into cities. “Corrupt Joe Biden wants to make them MUCH WORSE,” Trump tweeted.
Hours after Trump tweeted, his son Donald Trump Jr., posted a link to a National Review article titled, “Joe Biden and Democrats Are Set to Abolish the Suburbs.”
Shaun Donovan, who as secretary of Housing and Urban Development created the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing policy after pursuing fair housing actions against Yonkers, New York, and other localities, said the messages had little to do with housing policy, but were part of a campaign to stoke long-simmering racial animosities for political purposes.
“Trump’s tweet is racist and wrong,” said Donovan, who established the rule after months of consultation with civil rights groups. “He would turn back the clock to the days when the federal government perpetuated the lie that Black families’ moving to suburban neighborhoods brings down property values.”
The core of the fair housing policy was “a recognition that outlawing intentional discrimination is not enough for people of color to overcome the consequences of centuries of oppression,” added Donovan, a former New York City housing commissioner who is now running for mayor.
Whatever the motive, the tweet was a pointed reminder of just how firmly Trump’s slashing style is rooted in the racially polarized conflicts of his early days in Queens.
The president, fighting for survival at 74, is choosing to make a political stand on a similar racial and political battlefield he first stormed in 1973, when, at 27, he vehemently fought a federal fair housing lawsuit accusing his father Fred Trump’s rental developments in boroughs outside Manhattan of discriminating against Black applicants.
Diane Yentel, the president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, an advocacy group based in Washington, questioned the timing of the tweet — especially since Trump seldom weighs in on such specific policy matters.
“It’s especially abhorrent for the president to threaten further entrenchment of segregated communities now, during a time of reckoning on racial injustices in our country,” Yentel said. “A direct line connects America’s history of racist housing policies to today’s overpolicing of Black and brown communities.”
It is unclear how the pandemic, economic swoon and local moratoriums on rent payments will affect the proposed rule changes. Even before the current crisis, homelessness rates were on the rise, especially on the West Coast. At the same time, Black homeownership rates have dropped to levels not seen since the 1960s.
The Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing policy was meant to replace oversight of federal spending on housing that was widely seen as ineffective, especially when it came to discrimination based on race, disability, gender, age and sexual orientation.
The new rules, in theory, created stricter benchmarks for communities receiving federal funding, but compliance proved difficult, and HUD was still working on a tool kit that would have made it easier for localities to file the necessary reports when Trump was elected, Donovan said.
Opponents, including some local officials, viewed the new system as onerous — and found a receptive audience for their complaints when Ben Carson, a brain surgeon with no housing experience, was confirmed as Trump’s housing secretary in 2017.
By 2018, Carson, a free-market conservative and the only Black person in Trump’s Cabinet, delayed enactment of the regulation and signaled his intention to eliminate it altogether, part of a larger strategy of slow-walking fair housing investigations and marginalizing department officials who aggressively pursued cases.
Carson’s moves were part of a larger push to reduce housing regulation led by the Heritage Foundation and other conservative think tanks that worked closely with department officials and the White House Domestic Policy Council.
Carson has also tried to roll back the Obama administration’s attempt to more closely monitor the use of computer algorithms and other methods that have historically been used to exclude minority applicants from receiving housing loans.
In announcing the proposed rule changes, Carson claimed the Obama-era initiative was “actually suffocating investment in some of our most distressed neighborhoods that need our investment the most.”
Source: The New York Times.