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Supreme Court Will Review Key Federal Fair Housing Statute

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By focusing on the consequences of unfair housing practices, the disparate impact standard often helps screen out discrimination that is intentional, but subtle or concealed. Equally important, it eliminates practices that may be neutral on their face but nevertheless freeze in place the effects of prior racial discrimination. If all plaintiffs had to prove discriminatory intent, the majority of housing practices that disadvantage African Americans and Latinos would be left unchallenged.

As the United States has emphasized in a brief filed in this case, all eleven federal appellate courts that have addressed the issue have concluded that the Fair Housing Act prohibits public and private housing practices that have an unjustified and disproportionately harmful effect on racial minorities. In February 2013, the U.S. Department of Housing and Development issued final regulations that similarly confirm the long-standing understanding among federal agencies that the Fair Housing Act does not require proof of intent to discriminate.

Despite the consensus among federal courts and federal agencies, the Township of Mount Holly, New Jersey claims that Congress intended for the Fair Housing Act to prohibit only actions that were proven to be intentionally motivated by racial discrimination. The Township seeks to overturn a ruling of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit that a group of residents, called Mount Holly Gardens Citizens in Action, can proceed with their fair housing suit against the Township.

The residents challenged the Township’s plan to demolish all of the existing homes in the only neighborhood in the Township that was predominantly occupied by African Americans and Latinos. Many neighborhood residents are homeowners who have lived in their homes for years. The Township proposed to replace those homes with more expensive housing that the neighborhood’s current homeowners and renters cannot afford. The residents advocated that the Township should adopt a less heavy-handed alternative strategy of neighborhood improvement that would not entail the wholesale destruction and redevelopment of a once-stable minority community.

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