The district court of Washington, D.C., ruled late in December that Ben Carson and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) must enforce an Obama-era anti-segregation measure in HUD’s Section 8 housing voucher program.
Carson had previously sought to delay implementation of the Small Area Fair Market Rent (SAFMR) by two years so that public housing agencies (PHA) have “more time to integrate this big change into their voucher programs.” Instead, the court ruling forced implementation of SAFMR on its previous effective date, January 1, 2018.
The SAFMR rule is designed to give Section 8 housing voucher recipients more freedom of choice in where to live, in addition to helping prevent landlords from price gouging in low-income areas when they rent to voucher recipients. Prior to the rule, the housing voucher subsidized a recipient’s rent above about 30 percent of their income, but the subsidy is capped at a “fair market rent” HUD calculates by averaging rents across a metro area.
But because rents can vary widely across a metro area, the voucher often isn’t enough to cover a recipient’s needs unless they live in a low-income or impoverished area. And because voucher recipients tend to be people of color, vouchers tend to reinforce racial segregation.
The SAFMR rule makes a subtle but impactful change to the way fair market rent is calculated for voucher recipients: Instead of averaging across an entire metro area, it averages a nearby zip code. This allows the value of the voucher to rise to meet rents in higher income areas, thus giving recipients more choice in where to live.
It’s unclear if HUD plans on appealing the ruling but a spokesman for the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund told The Intercept that they expect HUD to comply with the ruling and that it has an obligation to implement the rule immediately.
Under President Obama, HUD ran a pilot program for SAFMR in 2012 and decided in 2016 to adopt the policy beginning in 2018. In August of 2017 Carson announced the delay but offered only vague reasons why, particularly given the program was vetted over the course of years.
A collection of civil rights groups led by Open Communities Alliance, a Connecticut nonprofit that advocates for “interracial access to opportunity and housing choice,” filed the lawsuit on behalf of plaintiffs Crystal Carter and Tiara Moore, two voucher recipients. Carson has been criticized in the past for his views on civil rights and poverty, which in May he said was “largely a state of mind.”