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"The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund is simply the best civil rights law firm in American history." -- President Obama

Supreme Court Will Review Key Federal Fair Housing Statute

Monday, June 17, 2013

Statement by NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s President and Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill

Today, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Mount Holly v. Mount Holly Gardens Citizens in Action, IncWe call on the Court to use this case as an opportunity to continue our nation’s progress to ensure that all families have a fair opportunity to find a good place to call home. 

In Mount Holly, the Court will review a key provision of the Fair Housing Act, which is our nation’s key tool to eradicate housing discrimination and promote more inclusive neighborhoods.  The Fair Housing Act was enacted in 1968 as a testament to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in the wake of his tragic assassination.  Since then, our nation has made progress toward eliminating racial segregation and discrimination in housing.  Yet, as our recent economic crisis has starkly revealed, predatory lending and other discriminatory practices continue to deny housing opportunities to people of color and isolate minority communities.  This case comes at a particularly critical time as African-American families struggle to overcome the devastating effects of the recession on homeownership and wealth. 

We will urge the Court to endorse the long-standing consensus that the “disparate impact” standard can be used to enforce the Fair Housing Act.  “Disparate impact” occurs when government or private actors unjustifiably pursue practices that have a disproportionately harmful effect on communities of color and other groups protected by the Fair Housing Act.  This standard is often used in challenging discrimination in mortgage lending, homeowners’ insurance, exclusionary zoning, redevelopment, and demolition of public housing.   

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.  For the statement of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) applauding HUD for issuing these regulations, see here.

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. 

For more than 70 years, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund has challenged policies and practices like those at issue in Mount Holly that deny African Americans housing opportunity and isolate African-American communities.  In its litigation and advocacy, LDF has also played an instrumental role in advancing the doctrine of disparate impact discrimination, beginning with its landmark victory in Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971).  Since the 1970s, this method of proving discrimination by focusing on the harmful effects on minority communities has been recognized by courts in a variety of civil rights cases, including those addressing employment discrimination, unequal educational opportunities, and environmental racism. 

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Founded in 1940, LDF is the leading legal organization fighting for racial justice in America. LDF has been a separate entity from the NAACP since 1957.  Therefore, if the organization’s name needs to be shortened, please refer to it as “NAACP Legal Defense Fund” or “Legal Defense Fund” rather than simply “NAACP.”

LDF is also involved in other Supreme Court cases about college diversity, voting rights and gay marriage.