Trump Administration Deregulates Housing

Richard W. Shepherd
Marketing & Symposium Editor
Loyola University Chicago, J.D. 2019

As President Donald Trump continues to deliver on his promise to deregulate, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has been instrumental in reversing Obama-era regulations.  President Trump, who made his fortune in real estate development, has a checkered past when it comes to fair housing and discrimination.  Now his administration is working to cut funding to HUD and unwind many fair housing and discrimination rules.  Administration proponents say this is a necessary step to fix a broken and corrupt bureaucracy, while many advocates have expressed concern over the government scaling back enforcement of fair housing laws.  Any reform effort should seek to balance concerns about bureaucracy with the vital missions of fair discrimination-free housing, inclusive communities, and civil rights.

Starting at the Top

Perhaps the most effective way for a President to affect policy changes is through presidential appointments.  On March 2, 2017, the Senate approved President Trump’s nominee for the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Dr. Ben Carson.  Secretary Carson replaced Obama-appointee Julián Castro.  Prior to his appointment, Dr. Carson was a pediatric surgeon and Republican politician, with no direct experience related to housing.  Secretary Carson stated that administering the department “is more complex than brain surgery.”

In addition to Dr. Carson, President Trump appointed longtime Trump associate Lynne Patton to oversee the New York and New Jersey HUD offices, one of the most influential posts in the department.  Prior to her appointment, Ms. Patton worked as an event planner in the Trump Organization.  The appointment was met with immediate backlash from New York Democrats, including Mayor Bill de Blasio, who held the office during the Clinton Administration.  Prior to her nomination, Ms. Patton had no experience related to housing.

The new HUD administration has moved quickly to implement President Trump’s small-government vision for the department.  HUD updated its mission statement “in an effort to align HUD’s mission with the Secretary’s priorities and that of the administration.” This was accomplished through removing promises of “inclusiveness” and “discrimination-free communities.”

President Trump’s 2019 budget also reflects the Administration’s new policy towards housing.  The budget would slash HUD’s budget by $8.8 billion, or 18 percent.  To compensate for the cuts in funding, the Administration will ask HUD-assisted households to “shoulder” more of their housing costs.  Secretary Carson said the budget would help “move people towards self-sufficiency through reforming rental assistance programs and moving aging public housing to more sustainable platforms.”

Suspending HUD Investigations

Secretary Carson has taken several steps to reverse Obama-era policies promulgated by his predecessor Julián Castro.  In November 2017, the head of the Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity Division of HUD ordered an indefinite hold on a half-dozen high priority fair housing investigations.  These “secretary-initiated” cases were used to indicate the priorities of the administration, and to set precedent in the housing industry.

In addition to suspending secretary-initiated cases, Secretary Carson also suspended a high-profile investigation of Facebook.  Facebook was sued by several fair housing groups accusing the social media company of allowing real estate developers to discriminate via advertisements on their platform.  A real estate developer could use the personal information Facebook provides them, to target ads to specific users based on their sex, race, family status, or number of children.  For example, if a user had “liked” Telemundo, or had posted about learning English as a second language, developers could use that information to exclude those users from their advertisements.  Facebook refers to information like this as “ethic affinities,” and it has proven an effective method of identifying minority users.  Scrutiny of Facebook’s advertising practices began in 2016; however, the social media company has done little to change their policies.

Secretary Carson ordered Fair Housing Division officials to cancel a planned negotiating session with Facebook.  HUD took Facebook at its word that their “policies prohibit using our targeting operations to discriminate.”  HUD then terminated the preliminary investigation into Facebook.

Fair Housing Rules

In January 2018, HUD postponed implementation of the Obama-era Rule on Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing.  The policy, set to take effect in 2020, sought to give Federal enforcement to a civil rights-era rule requiring local governments to take ownership and confront racial inequality in local housing.  HUD administrators say the delay is to give local governments more time to prepare for the rule’s implementation; however, fair housing advocates see the move as the Trump Administration abandoning the effort.

The Rule on Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing fulfills a long-standing mandate of the Fair Housing Act of 1968.  In addition to prohibiting racial discrimination in housing, the Fair Housing Act required local governments to work to desegregate their communities.  The requirement proved difficult to enforce.  In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that the Fair Housing Act prohibited housing policies that negatively affected minority groups, absent statutory intent to do so.  The Obama Administration used this ruling as legal justification to craft the Rule, which required any community seeking block-grant funding from HUD to complete a comprehensive assessment of fair housing.  It remains unclear whether the delay is truly meant to give local governments more time, or whether the action fits within Secretary Carson’s mandate to deregulate housing.

Looking Forward

In a memo to HUD staff, Secretary Carson dismissed any notion that the department was abandoning its fair housing mission as “nonsense.”  However, recent actions indicate the new HUD is at least undergoing a significant recalibration, more in line with the priorities of the new administration.  What this means for fair housing and civil rights remains to be seen.