Congress passed the Fair Housing Act with broad bipartisan support one week after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It remains one of the most critical pieces of civil rights legislation for advancing racial and other forms of equality. Since then, the FHA’s protection against discriminatory impacts on particular communities has enjoyed bipartisan support for over 45 years. Today, an administrative change to the Fair Housing Act threatens to unravel these key protections.
Most administrative changes go unnoticed, but a recent proposed change could have negative consequences for North Dakota. In the last decade, North Dakota’s western oil activity and low unemployment rate has brought thousands of people to our state and encouraged our young population to stay. This population increase, combined with a small supply of housing, has contributed to higher rents which threaten the housing stability of many of North Dakota’s renters. The groups most vulnerable to these changes and to discriminatory practices are the elderly, people with disabilities, families with children, single parents and people of color. We at High Plains Fair Housing see countless examples of how this scarcity of affordable housing plays out every day.
The Fair Housing Act has played an important role in helping North Dakotans fight housing discrimination. Yet still, we at the High Plains Fair Housing Center receives calls every day from people experiencing housing discrimination in our communities. Discrimination faced by North Dakotans doesn’t only happen when residents are turned away from housing, although that happens. For many, it comes in the form of policies and practices from landlords and banks that disproportionately affect certain groups.
Now we may lose one of the most effective tools we have for keeping North Dakotans in their homes and protecting them from discriminatory housing policies. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has put forward a revised rule that essentially guts a key tool against this type of covert discrimination called the disparate impact rule.
Disparate impact theory is a bedrock legal principal that has been applied under the Fair Housing Act for more than four decades The disparate impact standard helps victims of discrimination challenge policies that appear neutral at face value but disproportionately affect one group. Even when an official complaint isn’t filed, disparate impact is key to negotiating with landlords and housing providers and keeping our clients in their homes. For many North Dakotans, disparate impact isn’t just a legal standard. It goes a long way toward preserving their housing and improving their quality of life.
High Plains Fair Housing has helped clients successfully petition landlords for changes needed to keep them in their homes and improve their quality of life — from helping tenants fight discriminatory occupancy limits to uncovering evidence of landlords refusing to rent to families with children. For our clients, these changes are prohibitively expensive and would have forced them to move otherwise. Using disparate impact, our staff were able to negotiate with landlords to ensure our clients remain in their homes.
Here in North Dakota, we’ve also used disparate impact to protect families with children, religious minorities and low-income individuals from housing discrimination, eviction and penalties. Without disparate impact, the burden will fall on average North Dakotans to prove they were overtly discriminated against. Many of our clients, who have faced significant hurdles from landlords and housing providers who may not have even realized the discriminatory impact of their policies, would be unable to defend themselves.
Before the Fair Housing Act was passed, discrimination was legal and often blatant. Today it more often hides behind a housing policy. We owe it to our neighbors and our communities across the state to preserve disparate impact standards. In addition to protecting the rights of marginalized groups already impacted by deep-seated inequities, disparate impact helps fulfill the original promise of the Fair Housing Act to ensure equal access to quality housing and opportunity.
There’s still a chance to stop the Department of Housing and Urban Development from pushing through this harmful rule change. HUD is accepting comments from the public and community stakeholders—but only for another few weeks. Now is the time for North Dakotans to make their voices heard and support a policy that does so much for those left behind by the housing market.