The Fair Housing Act was enacted to prevent discrimination in the buying, selling, and renting of homes on the basis of certain protected categories, including race. While it’s clear that the Act bars discriminatory intent, such as refusing to deal with members of a certain racial group, it remains an open question whether it covers claims of “disparate impact,” where the effects of a neutral policy—say, requiring a credit check—disproportionately harms members of the protected class.
In a new brief, Cato, along with the Pacific Legal Foundation and five other groups seeks to have this question answered in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project. This case involves a Texas program that allocates federal tax credits to developers to build low-income housing projects. The Inclusive Communities Project, which places low-income tenants in predominately white suburban neighborhoods, sued the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs because it disproportionately gave the credits to properties in minority-populated areas. ICP’s claim relied on the disparate impact theory, which reaches “conduct that has the necessary and foreseeable consequences of perpetuating segregation” and “disproportionately burden[s] a particular racial group.” The district court found for ICP after applying a ruling from another lower court that required defendants to justify their actions with a compelling governmental interest and prove that there were no less discriminatory alternatives.
While the case was on appeal, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development issued regulations establishing a similar standard for Fair Housing Act disparate-impact claims. Under the new HUD regulations, the burden of proof shifts to the defendant if the plaintiff shows that the challenged practice “caused or predictably will cause a discriminatory effect.” The defendant must then prove that the challenged practice is “necessary to achieve one or more substantial, legitimate, nondiscriminatory interests,” but the plaintiff may still prevail upon showing that there was another practice with a less discriminatory effect. The Fifth Circuit panel adopted the HUD standard and remanded the case back to the district court, at which point Texas asked the Supreme Court to step in and answer two questions: (1) Whether disparate-impact claims are cognizable under the Fair Housing Act; and (2) what are the standards and burdens of proof that should apply if such claims are cognizable?
The Supreme Court previously granted cert. in two cases dealing with these issues—Magner v. Gallagher and Mount Holly v. Mount Holly Gardens Citizens in Action—but both settled before a ruling on the merits. While the Court has never explicitly considered the use of disparate impact under the FHA, the circuit courts have developed diverging jurisprudence. The D.C. Circuit has yet to address these issues at all, and HUD’s new regulations further confuse everything. The issue is ripe and the Court should rule in order to settle this split by recognizing that the text of the FHA doesn’t support disparate-impact claims.
The relevant provision makes it unlawful to “refuse to sell or rent … because of race.” Such language connotes a purposeful, causal connection between the refusal to deal and the person’s race. Compare that language to the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which prevents an employer from taking action against an employee that would “adversely affect his status as an employee, because of such individual’s age.” The Supreme Court allowed disparate-impact claims to proceed under that provision, contrasting it with another section of the ADEA that forbids “discriminat[ing] against any individual … because of such individual’s age.” Whereas the first section focused on the effect on the employee, the second focuses on the action of the employer. This finding is consistent with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which forbids intentional discrimination but not disparate impact. Review by the Court is needed to resolve the conflict between disparate impact and equal protection.
Subjecting defendants to liability for disparate impact forces them into unconstitutional race-conscious decision making, resulting in a de facto quota system. The Supreme Court should take this case and resolve the issue once and for all.