It started with a tweet last week:
“I am happy to inform all of the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood,” President Donald Trump tweeted on Wednesday. “Your housing prices will go up based on the market, and crime will go down. I have rescinded the Obama-Biden AFFH Rule. Enjoy!”
That rule, known as the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing regulation, was an Obama administration-era rule that targeted racial housing discrimination and segregation. It was repealed last week, according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, with Trump saying that the decision would reduce crime and increase housing prices in the suburbs.
But what did the AFFH do, and what does its repeal mean for places like Philadelphia? Here is a basic overview:
What is the AFFH rule?
Essentially, the AFFH was used to fight housing discrimination by changing what local governments have to do to get some federal funding. Instituted in 2015 under the Obama administration as part of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, the rule told localities that they needed to analyze housing discrimination and segregation in their areas, and come up with plans to address those issues.
The Fair Housing Act was a groundbreaking piece of legislation that made discrimination in housing illegal.
The act already required federal agencies to act “in a manner affirmatively to further” the purposes of the law, so you had to not just make sure that you weren’t discriminating, but that you were working proactively to make your municipality more equitable. And the AFFH rule added accountability, which didn’t exist before, to make that point enforceable.
Essentially, the Obama administration made that part of the act possible to enforce, said Olatunde C. Johnson, a law professor at Columbia Law School. “The 2015 rule made action around affirmatively furthering fair housing more precise and meaningful.”
According to the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, the AFFH rule worked by creating “a community-centered process to analyze patterns and causes of segregation as well as neighborhood disparities,” and by having jurisdictions looking for federal funding “set actionable goals to promote greater integration and equity.”
As a result, said Vincent J. Reina, assistant professor of city and regional planning at the University of Pennsylvania, the rule is meant to get municipalities to think more proactively and develop policies that address discrimination and segregation in housing.
But here’s what it didn’t do: It did not control the use of local dollars, or local zoning; that was still up to the municipalities.
Is this the first time the rule has been a target?
In short, no. The Trump administration has long opposed the AFFH, with HUD Secretary Ben Carson calling it a “mandated social-engineering scheme” in a 2015 op-ed in the Washington Times. Last week, Carson seemed to identify the AFFH as a federal overreach, saying that “Washington has no business dictating what is best to meet your local community’s unique needs.”
And the government had already taken steps to make the AFFH less powerful. In 2018, HUD essentially suspended the AFFH by delaying when municipalities had to submit fair housing plans, the National Fair Housing Alliance Indicates, and making it harder for local governments to prepare their plans.
“Before we could see the results of the 2015 rule, it was suspended, and now it is has been dismantled,” said Angela McIver, CEO of the Fair Housing Rights Center in Southeastern Pennsylvania.
What is it being replaced with?
In last week’s HUD statement, Carson said that the AFFH regulation was “unworkable and ultimately a waste of time for localities to comply with,” and that it was being replaced with a new rule known as Preserving Community and Neighborhood Choice.
That regulation, HUD’s statement said, defines fair housing more broadly to mean “housing that, among other attributes, is affordable, safe, decent, free of unlawful discrimination, and accessible under civil rights laws.”
The definition of “affirmatively furthering fair housing” has also changed to mean “any action rationally related to promoting any of the above attributes of fair housing.” Rather than provide a detailed plan, as under the Obama-era regulation, municipalities are able to decide for themselves that housing is following those rules, Politico reports.
“Now, the same jurisdictions that receive federal funds for housing only have to certify that they will do something in relation to fair housing,” McIver said. HUD, however, is still able to withdraw funding, but only if an investigation finds that a jurisdiction has not fulfilled its commitment to affirmatively furthering fair housing.
In general, said Johnson, the new regulation is a “hard to comprehend replacement” with few specific guidelines. Ultimately, she said, that vagueness will lead to confusion, with municipalities not knowing exactly what is required.
“In the interim, I’m sure that this will be challenged. Civil rights groups will raise challenges about how it is done.”
How will this affect Philly?
At the moment, the local impact of the AFFH’s repeal is not entirely clear. Philadelphia did complete a fair housing report in 2016, which was approved by HUD and adopted by the city. At nearly 800 pages, the report outlined some real challenges to fair housing in the city, and a list of goals to combat those problems.
Reina said the housing plan adopted by the city under the Obama-era rule was more robust than prior plans. “It was also full of actionable items that, in theory, we would hope to see roll out in years to come,” said Reina, who has advised the city on housing issues.
So what happens now? Even though AFFH has been repealed, the city can still work to address housing inequities, but local efforts can go only so far without the support of the federal government, Reina said.
But this may change very little. The Trump administration hasn’t enforced the AFFH rule for years, so the policy’s official repeal may not result in a noticeable impact.
“Philadelphia can decide for itself that it wants to use the AFFH that it produced in 2016 to continue to correct decades of disparity throughout its neighborhoods,” McIver said. “It doesn’t have to do the reporting that it once had to do, but it can make a decision and say, ‘We value the people who reside in Philadelphia.’ ”
City Council President Darrell Clarke, meanwhile, issued a statement last week urging officials at all levels of government to “join me in condemning the President’s divisive actions and comments on housing.”
“We must acknowledge today, as our leaders did with the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, that our systems are not yet fair and that people of color continue to face tremendous biases in securing a fundamental right: a safe home for their families,” Clarke said.
Staff writer Andrew Seidman contributed to this article.
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.