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What today's Supreme Court housing decision means for civil rights and moving out of the inner city

Jun 25, 2015

Credit see ming lee / flickr

The U.S. Supreme Court issued two opinions today that, in a practical matter, mean more to low-income families than to anyone else.

There is the Affordable Care Act decision, which protects health insurance coverage of those people who need government subsidies to afford the cost of health care on the exchanges.

And there was also this housing decision that came out of a case originally brought in Texas.

The court faced off 5-4 to say something that is pretty surprising given the last few decades of federal court's interpretation of civil rights law.

Here's what happened; for the past couple of decades people have been able to challenge housing policies that purposely discriminate against people on the basis of race (think segregation laws, for example).

Today, the court said that not only are those kinds of actions not ok, but neither is something more common but harder to prove; policies or programs that result in discrimination even if that wasn't the clear intent. 

The policy being challenged here was an affordable housing program in Dallas. It gave low-income families access to subsidized housing, but almost all the homes available to them with the vouchers were in the primarily black inner-city, not in more integrated neighborhoods outside the urban core.

The justices' opinions seemed to be persuaded by evidence of just how multi-layered housing segregation is.

Everything from zoning laws, to subsidy programs, to loan policies contribute to the segregation we see today all across the county. The court majority said all of these things, "function unfairly to exclude minorities from certain neighborhoods without any sufficient justification."

This is unquestionably a victory for civil rights groups, who have seen similar claims fail for years in other areas like education and voting.

The court was cautious, however.

They want to see policies that don't discriminate, and, at the same time, are race-neutral. No quotas or racial targets on the way to making things more equitable will be allowed.

Will this decision change things?

The bigger question is whether a housing decision like this will have an effect on how concentrated poverty has become in our state and country.

Concentrated poverty is killer of economic mobility. It lessens the opportunity for a great education, good jobs, and services like transportation that make a move up the economic ladder more possible.

My colleague Dustin Dwyer has written before about the effect moving away from poverty and toward opportunity can have on a family. This court decision might make that an option for more people. 

But we've also written about how poverty is already moving into the suburbs and quickly concentrating there too. That shows how stubborn and sticky poverty really is. It's hard to move out of poverty and easier to relocate it. 

If you have stories to share about the role housing has played in your life, we'd love to hear them. Share them with us at alvarez@michiganradio.org