The civil rights community is closely watching a case that threatens to unwind current law that protects minority communities from unfair housing practices. Pursuant to a 1988 amendment, the federal government determines the existence of discriminatory housing practices by analyzing whether an act unequally impacts specific populations of the community. The U.S. Supreme Court will consider whether disparate impact claims are cognizable under the Fair Housing Act.
As I read the fancy legal words in Mount Holly Township v. Mount Holly Gardens Citizens in Action, Inc., an old nightmare returned. From the distant past, I heard the hushed voices of my parents as they tried to digest the news that their home had been condemned under Sacramento’s redevelopment plan.
I saw my mother cry for the first time after she finished reading a letter that our home had been condemned under the government’s eminent domain authority. Soon after, my aunt received a letter from the City of Sacramento that her home had also been condemned. So much had already been taken away from them by the Great Depression, by the State of California that fired them from their jobs right after Pearl Harbor because they were the wrong race, and by the federal government’s imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War.
What the government took away with one hand, it took away even more with the other hand. The California Alien Land Act prevented my first-generation grandparents from owning land. Compromises that came with the passage of the New Deal exacerbated the problem through HUD policies that red-lined communities of color and encouraged the adoption of all-white covenants. Residents that lived in inner-city, red-lined communities could not obtain federal loans to purchase or improve homes. Lacking financing, “colored” neighborhoods started to look a little more frayed than neighboring white neighborhoods. Following World War II, suburban communities were created across the country, but most excluded families like mine. In order to qualify for federal loans, most of the developments adopted all-white covenants in order to “protect” the value of homes and ensure repayment of loans.
Redevelopment became a dirty word as Japantowns and other ethnic neighborhoods disappeared up and down the West Coast. Our neighborhood was not “blighted”. The gardens were neat, and the houses were clean. The homes were not fancy, but they were cared for. Our streets were an anomaly in mid-century America because they were a mixture of Asians, Latinos, and African Americans. Eminent domain became a reverse-Robinhood tool that allowed governments to take property from communities of color to give to rich developers. Ethnic neighborhoods became victims of an assemblyline process of lack of financing, depressed values, condemnation, and corporate profits.
Dad and Mom paid far too much for our house. In post-World War II California, discrimination ensured housing for Japanese families was scarce, driving up prices for even modest homes. The city offered only a fraction of the purchase price of our home to my parents. If there was a fair market consideration, the market was artificially depressed by the city’s announcement that our neighborhood had been condemned. Every weekend, Dad and Mom went house-hunting, and every weekend, my mother’s purse was filled with tear-drenched handkerchiefs. It was months before they could overcome the dual challenges of affordability and a place that would accept a colored family.
This is much like the story of the over 350 families that lived in The Gardens in Mount Holly Township. These African-American and Latino families settled in the military-owned houses right after World War II. It was the only section of town that was integrated. It was the kind of community where you could smell the cookies being baked by grandmothers for their grandchildren, and where the furniture is a little worn but always provides comfort.
Today, only 70 homes remain. The Township demolished the others home by home, sometimes damaging adjoining townhomes in its rush to build $250,000 homes where humble homes once stood. Thirty-odd families are still fighting for their rights to their homes.
In New Jersey, it is easy to declare an area as blighted. No inspections are required. The government offered only $30,000-50,000 for the homes, far less than the $250,000-300,000 required for a home in the new development. There are those who argue that they have made provisions for these families to live in the new development, but New Jersey bases “affordability” on the median income of 80% of the population. The New Jersey standard ignores the plight of retirees and those who live at the lower end of the income scale.
Mount Holly is a major attack on the Fair Housing Act, and is the most important case remaining before the U. S. Supreme Court this term. It is another assault on the civil rights advances of the 1960s. The Fair Housing Act was a foundational measure that addressed grievous inequalities of the era. If we do not preserve the use of disparate impact to protect abuses, we not only lose homes, we lose what it means to be a community.
This year is the 25th anniversary of the Fair Housing amendments of 1988 that established the concept of disparate impact. The policy has applicability beyond housing. The case on behalf of the residents of The Gardens is winnable if we all put our shoulders to the task.