Disparate Impact: What in the world does that mean and why should I care?

Prosperity-Disp-Impact

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a landmark case on Wednesday, January 21, 2015 and yet little know what the words ‘disparate impact’ mean or how greatly this decision will affect them and fair housing in every community.

Disparate Impact is a legal doctrine under the Fair Housing Act which means that a policy or practice may be considered discriminatory if it has a disproportionate “adverse impact” against any group based on race, national origin, color, religion, sex, familial status, or disability.

Wait, What?

Disparate impact theory safeguards the right to a fair shot for everyone.

Why Does It Matter?

Where you live determines where you work and how you get there, your access to healthcare, and the school your child attends. Unfortunately, policies and practices still exist that – intentionally or unintentionally – keep some people out of housing they can afford simply because of who they are. While we have made great strides in advancing fairness in the housing sector, segregation persists and there is still more work to be done. Everyone benefits from a housing market free from discrimination where the full participation of all Americans is possible. Additionally, from a business standpoint the disparate impact theory helps us maintain open markets free from discrimination – a critical component to the prosperity of America’s future. Discrimination disrupts our economy, causing inefficiency and instability by constraining the full economic participation of all hard-working Americans.

Can you explain by example?

An apartment complex only allows people with full-time jobs. This bars disabled veterans and other people with disabilities who may not be able to work full-time, even though they can afford the apartment. The complex could instead consider all income to assess someone’s ability to afford rent.

A city decides to prohibit all housing that would be affordable to working-class people, and that has the effect of excluding most or all people of color in that region. If the city cannot show a valid reason for its policy, or if a more fair and effective alternative is available, then the policy would have to be set aside under the disparate impact approach.

A lender has a policy of allowing its loan officers to overcharge consumers at the loan officer’s discretion. The result is that women are charged higher prices than their male counterparts—even though both have the same credit profiles. In a case like this, the lender would have to abandon the discretionary pricing policy and take steps to insure that women are not over-charged for lending products and services.

Ok, I know understand. What can I do about this?

You can make noise by:

  • Sharing this blog so more people understand
  • Share our Facebook post and re-tweet our tweets with hashtag #KeepHousingFair
  • Join us in DC on Wednesday, January 21, from 9:00 to 11:30 a.m. as we rally to Keep Housing Fair at the S. Supreme Court

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Here is some more explanation and history on this case from the Shelterforce blog.

 

Supreme Court Decision Could Be Crucial to Protecting Domestic Violence Survivors

several hands of different races reach up towards an extended hand. The palms have words written on them, including:

“This concept – evicting victims of domestic violence because of the abuse they face is not only wrong but illegal – should not be controversial. The courts and the federal government agree, having repeatedly found that the Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination against survivors of domestic violence because of its “disparate impact” on women.”

Read Michaela Wallin’s piece, posted on the American Civil Liberties Union’s blog, about how disparate impact affects the fair housing rights of domestic abuse survivors

Letter to the Editor Concerning the Prevention of Saint Paul’s College from Providing Refuge

The following letter to the editor was published in the Richmond Times Dispatch on June 29, 2014.

The recent decisions to prevent the private Saint Paul’s College from providing refuge to 500 unaccompanied immigrant children at their vacant campus, as well as the general angst about immigration in our region is very concerning.  Immigration and providing refuge those escaping violence and hardship is a hallmark American value for which we should all be proud.  Immigration generally is important to our culture, economy, and moral foundation.

It is important that new arrivals have housing choice.  The Fair Housing Act of 1968 acknowledges this. The Fair Housing Act (FHA), 42 U.S.C. 3601 et seq.,  prohibits discrimination by housing providers, including municipalities, whose discriminatory practices make housing unavailable to persons on account of race or color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status, or disability.

Every person in the United States is protected by the Fair Housing Act regardless of their immigration status.   This is well established law.  In past years, the U.S. Justice Department has taken enforcement action against municipalities that have attempted to reduce or limit the number of Hispanic families that live in their communities.

Statements reported in recent news media made by some Brunswick officials such as, “There is this negative perception of gang violence – these people are coming from Central America”[1] indicate that officials may be attempting to deny these children access to housing on account of their nationality.  Municipalities such as Brunswick County have an additional duty to “affirmatively further fair housing” by virtue of their receipt of federal Community Development Block Grant funding.  We believe that making housing unavailable based on national origin may violate this obligation.

Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia, Inc. (HOME) is the only statewide fair housing organization in Virginia.  HOME’s mission is to ensure equal access to housing for all people.  HOME works to tackle systemically divisive housing practices on a larger scale through fair housing enforcement and research, advocacy, and statewide policy work.   We encourage municipalities and housing providers to reflect on the Fair Housing Act, and its requirements that prohibit making housing opportunities unavailable based on national origin.  We welcome further discussion.

Heather Mullins Crislip
President and CEO
Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia (HOME)

The Monster in the Closet

Recently, the news has been consumed by coverage of Donald Sterling’s racist comments caught on tape and the NBA’s swift and decisive condemnation. This seems to denote a turning point in race relations in the United States. We’re tempted to declare that the Civil Rights Movement has been a success, open racism is no longer acceptable, we’ve won! And it’s true, overt racism is frowned upon today and few proudly proclaim their racist ideals anymore. Even the Ku Klux Klan no longer claims to be an “enemy” to minorities (but they aren’t particularly friendly, either).[i] Yet, in 2003 when Donald Sterling was accused of housing discrimination against current and prospective tenants in his apartment complexes, nobody batted an eye. This accusation has only resurfaced to be used as one more piece of evidence to prove that his recorded remarks were made with racist intent. To me, this proves that open expressions of racism and being perceived by the public as a racist are undesirable in America, but policies and practices with racist effects, as long as they are hard to see, are somehow acceptable. America is not post-racial, our country continues to rest upon invisible and systemic racism, but we make ourselves feel better about it by condemning those who make their racism known.

Possibly the best thing to come out of this Sterling controversy is a great article at CNN from Rinku Sen, the publisher at Colorlines.com and executive director of Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation. In the article, Sen identifies three things that need to be done in order to achieve racial equity: “talk explicitly about race; focus on the impact of policies and practices and the intention behind them; and support power-building in marginalized communities.”[ii] So far, none of these things are happening on a regular or highly effective basis at the national level. They are, however, happening at the local and regional level, and with much success. Sen goes on to detail a few instances in which groups have explicitly looked at the racial impact of policies and practices, which might on the surface seem benign, and made changes which had positive impacts for racial equality.

I’d like to continue what Sen started with a discussion of HOME and the ways we try to combat racism using Sen’s framework. HOME has been engaged in ensuring equal access to housing for all people since 1971. We’ve always had a focus on combating racism, as this is one of the biggest barriers to fair housing. We work both at the individual and the systemic level and the examples I’m about to give have to do with both internal efforts amongst staff as well as our external programs.

  1. Talk explicitly about race: In February of this year, HOME had an intentional staff-wide discussion of racism and white privilege. We spoke about the ways we as individuals and as an organization experience and confront racism in our daily lives and work. We challenged each other to use white privilege, if we have it, to confront and disrupt racism when we see it. Additionally, we decided that as an organization we need to do a better job of not only confronting racism but being real about the ways it influences us as an organization both internally and externally. As a result of this discussion, we’ve begun to set aside intentional times to engage openly and honestly with one another about racism and inequality once a week during what we call “Brown Bag Lunches.” Racism informs our work, in fact, it drives much of it. We have committed to the ongoing process of talking intentionally and explicitly about racism and inequality so that we can clearly name it and interrupt it when we see it.
  1. Focus on the impact of policies and practices and the intention behind them: As an organization with a specific emphasis on research and advocacy, HOME regularly engages in identifying and investigating the racial impact of state and local policies as well as policies of private companies. Our interest is in the ways these policies and practices impact access to housing and the credit to obtain housing. We regularly investigate the policies and practices of private and public entities within the housing industry and conduct independent research such as our recent project, “Mapping RVA: Where You Live Makes All the Difference.” These research endeavors are then used to change the practices and policies of the participants and serve as valuable educational tools for others who are interested in making better policies for the future.
  1. Support power-building in marginalized communities: Finally, we empower low-to-moderate income families in the Richmond Metro Region to take advantage of the opportunity to build wealth by purchasing their first home. 84% of these families are minorities. None of them could have purchased a home when they did without the support of HOME’s program for first-time homebuyers. Owning a home is one of the best ways to provide not only economic but social stability for a family and the larger community. A low rate of homeownership among minority groups in the U.S. is one of the biggest contributing factors to the wealth gap between whites and minorities. By providing low-to-moderate income families with the opportunity to become homeowners, HOME strengthens minority communities and enables these families to achieve more than they ever dreamed possible.

America is not post racial. Racism permeates every facet of society because our society has not learned to confront or even effectively talk about racism and the ways it works in our world. This stops us from reaching our highest potential as a nation.

Yes, it is something to be excited about that someone with as much power as Donald Sterling can lose it all with an ill-timed racist remark, but invisible, systemic racism abounds in our society and we are letting it happen. Rinku Sen and I have given you a few examples of ways people are working to eliminate this proverbial monster in the closet, but it can’t be completed without a visible and systemic effort at the individual, local, regional, state and national levels. We have to condemn the covert as well as the overt acts of racism. All the anger and indignation over Donald Sterling will mean nothing if people are still denied full membership in society simply because of who they are.

 

 

 

[i] http://www.timesdispatch.com/news/local/chesterfield/chesterfield-residents-receive-kkk-fliers/article_ed60e60e-78ec-55f4-a6ef-0d579292069f.html

[ii] http://www.cnn.com/2014/05/07/living/race-sterling-identity/

__________________________________

Morgan Barker is serving with AmeriCorps VISTA at HOME. She is a Richmond native with a passion for social justice.

A dream for all of us

Martin Luther King Jr. was born this week in 1929. He shared with all of us a dream of a world in which the color of your skin did not bar you from any of life’s opportunities. HOME carries on his legacy by tirelessly enforcing the Fair Housing Act and remaining dedicated to ensuring that everyone, no matter who they are, has full access to the opportunity to live in safe, decent and affordable housing.

We know that discrimination is often based on more than just skin color. We file fair housing complaints based on skin color, race, religion, disability, age, sex, national origin, and familial status. This protects a lot of people, but there are still groups who are not protected. In Virginia, it is legal to discriminate based on sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, and source of income. Luckily, three bills filed in this session of the General Assembly propose adding sexual orientation as a protected class under the Virginia Fair Housing Act. Another bill seeks to protect families from discrimination based on their source of income. And finally, there is a bill which will enable all married couples- regardless of their gender or where they were married- to be legal joint property owners. Where you live makes all the difference, we want all Virginians to feel safe and secure in their housing choices.

If you agree with us, contact your legislator and tell them you support the rights of all Virginians to safe, affordable and decent housing. The protection of these rights should not be contingent upon sexual orientation, gender identity, or source of income.