Citing conflicts of interest and a poor enforcement track record that allegedly played a role in the foreclosure crisis and continued racial segregation in the country, a fair housing policy commission co-chaired by former U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) secretaries Jack Kemp and Henry Cisneros called this week for HUD to be stripped of its fair housing enforcement and educational outreach authorities.
"Currently, HUD as it is structured cannot effectively enforce fair housing," Cisneros said in announcing the policy recommendations contained in "The Future of Fair Housing," a report released by the National Commission on Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. The report is the result of a year-long study into fair housing that included public hearings in Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, Atlanta, and Houston.
"Everywhere we visited, we heard the same thing: The system is broken, and the Fair Housing Act is not being systematically, effectively, and rigorously enforced," Cisneros said. "We have come to the conclusion as a commission that the only way to address this problem is with the establishment of an independent, effective, impartial enforcement agency with backing from the president and from Congress."
According to Cisneros, the new agency would take responsibility for individually investigating all fair housing complaints; educate the public about its rights and responsibilities under the Fair Housing Act; and work with the housing industry, fair housing advocates, and enforcers to otherwise proactively address fair housing concerns.
"I commend Secretaries Kemp and Cisneros for their continued commitmentto providing safe and decent housing free from discrimination," said Ron Terwilliger, chairman and CEO of Trammell Crow Residential, the country's largest builder of multifamily housing, upon hearing the news. "Housing is a vital component of strong communities and essential to the well-being of the American economy."
Meanwhile, Kim Kendrick, HUD's assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity, countered in a statement that the department had never been more aggressive in enforcing the Fair Housing Act than it is right now. "We share the same commitment of the National Commission on Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, and we take this commitment very seriously," Kendrick said. "By every measure, HUD and our partners are aggressively enforcing the Fair Housing Act as never before. We join the Commission as we reinforce the need for continued vigilance in fighting housing discrimination, especially during this particularly challenging period in our nation's history."
Cisneros said HUD is currently in the awkward position of policing its own programs for Fair Housing violations and won't accuse civic and industry partners that it depends on for support of those programs of discrimination. "It isn't in the interest of HUD to prosecute the very entities that it relies upon to meet its goals, targets, and objectives," Cisneros said. "There's a built-in conflict in the present structure."
According to the commission's report, lack of thorough fair housing enforcement also tacitly supports continued racial segregation and discrimination in housing and lending-conditions that the commission says played a direct role in the current foreclosure crisis. Creation of a new enforcement agency "is the only way we can see that will begin to address the serious problems of housing segregation and discrimination that have helped lead us to our current foreclosure crisis, due in part to poor enforcement of fair housing and civil rights laws," Cisneros said.
The policy report recommends that a separate office of Civil Rights should remain at HUD to perform "program monitoring functions" and compliance with other civil rights laws. Cisneros added that a short-term interim solution would be to raise the profile and strengthen fair housing enforcement at HUD and give it a higher priority within the department but was adamant on the perceived need for an independent enforcement entity for fair housing reform. "A new independent agency unhampered by politics can get us there," Cisneros said. "It isn't a pipedream; it can be done. We see that possibility."
Fair housing advocates largely supported the commission's policy recommendations. "We certainly agree with the commission's findings that governmental enforcement of the civil rights laws affecting housing has been far from stellar," said Donald Kahl, executive director of the Equal Rights Center, a nonprofit fair housing advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. "While there are multiple approaches to addressing this problem, including the creation of an enforcement agency independent from HUD, the Equal Rights Center believes that it is the aggressiveness, competence, and effectiveness of enforcement leadership and staff that is critical."
The commission's report was sponsored by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the National Fair Housing Alliance, and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. It can be downloaded online at www.civilrights.org.