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Housing is still wildly discriminatory. Joe Biden has a plan to change that

From redlining to zoning to appraisals, there are countless systemic issues that result in discrimination.

Housing is still wildly discriminatory. Joe Biden has a plan to change that
[Images: Olivier Douliery/AFP/Getty Images, rikirennes/iStock]

When Joe Biden’s campaign unveiled its housing plan, one word near the top jumped out. The plan, which would invest $640 billion over 10 years, vows to end discriminatory and unfair practices in the housing market, including “redlining.”

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That term, redlining, refers to a 1930s-era policy of determining the “mortgage security” of a city’s neighborhoods largely based on the racial makeup of its residents. The less white, the less secure, according to the system. That resulted in Black people being segregated and cut off from loans and better-quality housing, which has had devastatingly long-term effects on Black Americans’ ability to build wealth. And though redlining was officially outlawed under the 1968 Fair Housing Act, housing discrimination still occurs today. The Biden plan lists several specific measures it would take to end this discrimination, and housing experts say it could make a big impact if implemented.

“The overall level of discrimination seems to have decreased, but it also can be harder to detect discrimination. It can be far less explicit than it used to be,” says Claudia Aranda, senior research associate at the Urban Institute. She’s studied housing markets across the country and testified before Congress about persistent discrimination experienced by renters and homebuyers of color. The fact that discrimination is present but less explicit “really does increase the need for resources for housing agencies and other enforcement agencies to do investigations and respond to complaints,” she says.

One of the main ways Biden’s plan seeks to address discrimination is by restoring the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, or AFFH, rule. This was enacted when Biden was Barack Obama’s vice president and requires communities to proactively identify and address potential housing discrimination as a condition of receiving certain federal funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. AFFH created resources for communities to better understand how housing assistance was being used and where, and how to help more residents access assistance.

But the rule was axed by the Trump administration in 2018, which, Aranda says, pulled many resources away from communities, limiting their ability to identify discrimination. Trump has also limited parts of the Fair Housing Act that protect peoples’ ability to file discrimination allegations. That includes the disparate impact rule, which allows for discrimination allegations to be heard when plaintiffs can simply show that actions have had a discriminatory effect, whether or not it was explicitly intended. The Trump administration has elevated the burden of proof for such claims.

Biden’s plan would undo those changes. It proposes the creation of a new Homeowner and Renter Bill of Rights that would protect homebuyers from overpriced mortgage loans and renters from discrimination if they receive federal housing assistance. Modeled on the California Homeowner Bill of Rights that’s been in place since 2013, Biden’s version would add new protections for homeowners facing potential foreclosure and allow recourse against mortgage lenders that violate consumer protections. The campaign also wants to protect more tenants from eviction. “That continues to be important as we go into this potential new wave of foreclosures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Jorge Soto, associate vice president of policy and advocacy at the National Fair Housing Alliance.

Soto was not involved in writing the plan and notes that his comments aren’t intended as an endorsement. But he says that one of the plan’s main strengths, aside from restoring the AFFH rule, is its focus on the more systemic issues that result in housing discrimination. The plan targets local and state policies known as exclusionary zoning that limit the type and density of development in cities. These zoning laws have made it illegal in some places for developers to build anything but single-family homes, limiting the housing supply and pushing out many lower-income renters and buyers.

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Another systemic issue the plan addresses is the lesser-known but hugely impactful practice of discriminatory appraisals. “There is increasing evidence that homes appraised in Black neighborhoods are done so in a discriminatory manner, and property owned by people of color or owned in communities with a majority of people of color have not been appropriately appraised,” Soto says. Homes in neighborhoods with predominantly non-white residents can see their values cut by tens of thousands of dollars compared to similar homes in white neighborhoods. The Biden plan would attempt to address this by creating a national standard for housing appraisals.

“Whether it’s a rainy day [fund] for your family or whether it is simply just to be able to transfer something that you own to the next generation, in order to deal with the massive inequity in this country we need to create avenues [so] the way that we value homes is also not discriminatory,” Soto says.

As with many campaign platforms, Biden’s housing plan proposes a lot of ideas that may or may not be implemented. “The devil’s in the details,” Aranda of the Urban Institute says. But with such an extensive focus on the very specific problem of discrimination in the housing market, the plan is at the very least pushing this issue back onto the national stage.

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