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Dallas Housing Discrimination Case Takes Center Stage At U.S. Supreme Court

Update: Civil rights advocates say a Texas case that came before the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday could weaken the Fair Housing Act of 1968

The nine justices heard oral arguments in the case, Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project.

The non-profit Inclusive Communities Project or ICP first sued Texas seven years ago arguing that the way the state awarded federal housing credits reinforced segregation. The suit couldn’t prove intent, but it was successful in showing that blacks and other minorities were disproportionately affected by the housing agency’s policies.

“I think their goals are laudable in that they’re trying to maximize the opportunities of African Americans to have affordable housing in every part of Dallas," saysJohn Shackelford, a Dallas attorney who's been closely following the case against the state housing department since 2008.

In his opinion, the Texas agency was not doing anything discriminatory.

"They were trying to find ways to make housing affordable for the most number of people," he says, "in areas where there’s the greatest demand, and also where it also works financially.” 

Disparate Impact

The Dallas non-profit cited a legal argument called “disparate impact.” This means ICP doesn’t have to prove intentional racial discrimination, only that the result hurt a protected group. 

“If the court makes it clear that throughout the country, in order to show discrimination, a plaintiff has the burden of showing there is actual intent to discriminate, the burden of proof would be much more difficult upon them to show discrimination,” Shackelford says. 

In other words, if ICP loses its case, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 could be re-interpreted. This is bad news for Lupe Gutierrez, who’s been helping minorities find housing for years. She says building new low-income housing in already poor neighborhoods doesn’t make sense.

“Yes, because they’re still stuck in the same place,” she says. 

She's had a hard time moving low-income families out of South Dallas.

"Who has the upper hand?"

“The want to help us," Gutierrez says. "They want us to become better persons or live in a better community, but if you’re low income, hello, you don’t have funds? And to fight against a developer, who has the upper hand?”

That’s something the Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce has been trying to change. Attorney Scott Chase is a former board chair.

“Housing does drive economic development," he says, "and to the extent we can increase housing stock and increase the value of housing, that increases the sustainable, economic development of that particular area.”

He hopes the Supreme Court case doesn’t harm what the Chamber is trying to do in South Dallas, which is to create mixed use development--- building homes, and businesses that create jobs locally.

“Regardless of what the Supreme Court says, we still need to push for that kind of solution because the tax credit housing will still be there, somewhere, and we want it to be in southern Dallas, but we want it to be with some sustainable, economic aspects too," Chase says. 

Update, Wednesday afternoon: The Associated Press reports:

The Supreme Court appears bitterly divided in a debate over a decades-old strategy for fighting housing discrimination, a case with North Texas roots.

Chief Justice John Roberts and his conservative colleagues expressed serious doubts Wednesday that the Fair Housing Act can be used to ban housing or lending practices without any proof of intent to discriminate.

The court's four liberal justices defended the use of so-called "disparate impact" lawsuits that allege even race-neutral policies can have a harmful effect on minority groups.

Civil rights groups have predicted the court took up the case to knock out such lawsuits. Justice Antonin Scalia asked tough questions of both sides.

The case involves an appeal from Texas officials accused of awarding federal tax credits in a way that steered low-income housing to mostly black neighborhoods. [Associated Press]

Original story, Wednesday morning: The U.S. Supreme Court today will begin to hear oral arguments in a case that started seven years ago in North Texas over racial integration in housing policies.

The Supreme Court could knock out a decades-old strategy for fighting housing discrimination, a move that would make it tougher for people to win lawsuits claiming housing policies are biased.

This could be a landmark case if the justices decide to re-interpret the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and place the burden of proof on plaintiffs to prove racial intent.

The justices hear arguments over whether housing or lending practices that have a negative impact on minorities can be considered illegal, even with no proof of intent to discriminate. 

Civil rights groups say they believe the court's conservative justices are eager to quash the use of so-called "disparate impact" lawsuits that focus on the effect - and not the intent - of a policy.

The case involves an appeal from Texas officials accused of awarding federal tax credits in a way that steered low-income housing to mostly black neighborhoods and generally kept them out of white areas.

A Dallas-based fair housing group, Inclusive Communities Project Inc., sued the Texas Department of Housing and Community Development in 2008. The group alleged that agency policies were keeping Dallas neighborhoods segregated and denying blacks a chance to move into safer neighborhoods with better schools.

The housing advocacy group couldn't prove Texas officials were intentionally biased. But a federal appeals court said the group could use statistics to show the effect of the policies still harmed black residents, in violation of the Fair Housing Act.

Under the current law, plaintiffs do not have to prove intent, only that the consequence is segregation, or what’s called a “disparate impact” on minorities.

Texas officials say disparate impact claims would essentially force them to make race-conscious decisions to avoid liability.

Dallas attorney John Shackelford is closely watching the case before the court because he says it has ramifications beyond just the housing industry.

“It also impacts financial institutions because regulators have looked at financial institutions and evaluated some of their lending practices in determining whether in effect they have discriminated against minorities when it comes to their loan applications,” Shackelford says.

Dallas City Council Member Scott Griggs is vice chair of the city’s Housing Committee.

“It’s very important to get this guidance from the Supreme Court on just what creates an adverse impact, and what doesn’t, and find a way to move forward not only Dallas, but the whole nation, in this conversation,” Griggs says.

A ruling could come by June.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Photo credit: Shutterstock

Doualy Xaykaothao is a newscaster and reporter for NPR, based in Culver City. She returned to NPR for this role in 2018, and is responsible for writing, producing, and delivering national newscasts. She also reports on breaking news stories for NPR.