For years, the right’s best think tanks and commentators have criticized an Obama-era anti-segregation policy by changing the subject.
Conservative scholars and officials have argued that the policy — aimed at giving the feds more authority to fight segregation in housing — was “federal overreach on steroids,” and that it could bankrupt poor communities in need of help.
Finally, on Wednesday, President Trump did what they have been asking for. He ended the policy.
But he also, as he so often does, screamed the quiet part loud, using an incredibly racist explanation for tossing the Obama rule out: suburbanites would “no longer be bothered.”
…Your housing prices will go up based on the market, and crime will go down. I have rescinded the Obama-Biden AFFH Rule. Enjoy!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 29, 2020
What, then, posed this supposedly existential threat to the Suburban Lifestyle Dream? What was it that was so bothersome?
The Obama-era policy was intended to add some muscle to the 1968 Fair Housing Act’s mandate that the federal government work to prevent racial discrimination in housing. The Obama administration issued the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule in 2015, bolstering the Fair Housing Act by requiring cities and towns that receive federal housing grants to investigate housing bias in their communities and put an end to it.
The policy was, in part, meant to hasten the end of racial segregation — a fact that its critics studiously avoided. Until Trump brought it up.
“To say that a rule that requires cities to analyze segregation would ‘destroy the suburbs’ is as close as you can get to an endorsement of racial segregation without actually saying the words,” Shamus Roller, executive director of the National Housing Law Project, said in a statement.
Apart from Trump, nearly everyone on the right who discussed the rule has found a way to make it about something other than a policy designed to limit racial segregation.
Take Secretary for Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, who rescinded the rule. In so doing, he used language that carefully portrayed minorities as the victims of the Obama policy.
“We found it to be unworkable and ultimately a waste of time for localities to comply with, too often resulting in funds being steered away from communities that need them most,” Carson said in a July 23 statement. “Washington has no business dictating what is best to meet your local community’s unique needs.”
That followed on years of commentary which framed the rule as an assault on the economic rights of freedom-loving suburbanites.
During a May 2016 Senate showdown over the rule, conservative pundit Stanley Kurtz wrote a column that effusively praised the underlying 1968 law as “a great achievement, rightly prohibiting discrimination in the sale or rental of housing,” while lashing out at Obama’s rule as “federal overreach on steroids.”
“Yet now, the Obama administration has promulgated a rule that effectively adds the radical new principle of government-imposed economic integration to law, when nothing of the sort appeared in the original FHA, and the public to this day overwhelmingly opposes the idea,” Kurtz wrote.
Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) framed the issue in a 2016 op-ed in terms of house pricing, saying that the real issue with the policy was that it would make housing more expensive.
“Instead of helping all American families by lowering housing costs, the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule would only add yet another layer of bureaucratic red tape on developers, making it less likely — not more — that they will find it worthwhile to build more housing units,” Lee wrote.
And the Wall Street Journal editorial board described it on Sunday as an example of “restrictive zoning,” saying that the real issue at play was “school choice.”
There’s an irony in the decision to outright rescind the rule: it actually came after the Trump administration dropped an earlier proposal to amend it, which was supported by fiscal conservatives.
That plan would have seen the Trump administration rewrite the Obama rule to take the focus away from anti-discrimination enforcement and put the focus on developing more housing.
Ryan Streeter, director of domestic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, called the administration proposal “sensible” in a piece that attacked the Obama-era rule as allowing the feds “to penalize localities if they were not diverse enough.”
But to Thomas Sugrue, Director of the Metropolitan Studies Program at New York University, Trump’s language in rescinding the rule reveals what interests the President about the debate: the opportunity to stoke the flames of the culture war and weaponize race as an election approaches.
“It’s meant to signal to his base that he is on their side in wanting, in pledging, to preserve the socioeconomic and racial homogeneity of white suburban America,” Sugrue told TPM.