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Senate panel grills housing regulators on racial bias, pandemic

HUD rolls back Obama administration rules

HUD Secretary Ben Carson, right, shown here in a 2016 meeting with Senate Banking Chairman Chairman Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, testified to the committee on Tuesday.
HUD Secretary Ben Carson, right, shown here in a 2016 meeting with Senate Banking Chairman Chairman Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, testified to the committee on Tuesday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The Senate Banking Committee channeled the nation’s concerns about racial disparities and COVID-19 into an oversight hearing with federal housing regulators Tuesday.

Democrats lambasted Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson over proposed changes to anti-discrimination rules while Republicans pressed Federal Housing Finance Agency chief Mark Calabria about the transition to a post-coronavirus world.

Ranking member Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, laced into Carson for administrative moves that civil rights groups say will weaken housing discrimination protections.

“Secretary Carson, under your leadership, instead of addressing the deep inequities in our housing system, you are trying to systematically dismantle basic civil rights protections that previous generations marched for and endured beatings for and laid down their lives for,” he said, alluding to current protests over police treatment of African Americans.

Last year, HUD proposed changes to the disparate impact rule, an Obama-administration regulation that codified a long-recognized legal theory that housing policies that harmed minorities without explicitly discriminating against them still violated 1968 housing legislation. Congress enacted that law amid the riots following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

The HUD proposal would make it harder to prove disparate impact generally, and give a carve-out for algorithm-based decisions that disproportionately prevent protected groups from getting an apartment or home.

Carson also reversed another Obama administration rule on affirmatively furthering fair housing (AFFH), a legal requirement that localities track and address racial bias in housing to qualify for HUD funds. The deregulatory changes to AFFH essentially promote more affordable housing while dropping the focus on race and accountability.

Both administrative actions have been panned by civil rights groups.

Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only black Republican in the Senate, acknowledged Brown’s “passion,” but focused his questions on the potential unintended consequences of allowing renters and homeowners to further put off payments. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic that resulted in more than 40 million people filing for jobless benefits, many state and local governments said rent and mortgage payments could be deferred temporarily.

Congress also provided a 60-day eviction and foreclosure moratorium for single-family homes with federally backed mortgages in its $2 trillion March COVID-19 relief law, and executive agencies extended those protections to the end of June. Calabria said his agency was considering another monthlong extension and would announce a decision within a week.

“As we pivot to a recovery and better job numbers, my question is this: As you think through the eviction conversation, can the moratorium actually make it harder for renters?” Scott said. “Are they not accruing a bigger and bigger balance that they have to pay one day, and will that not actually lead to more evictions and not less evictions?”

Calabria also responded to concerns that the forbearances were dragging mortgage servicers into insolvency, saying he gets a daily watch list of at-risk firms that has been shrinking of late. “Servicers are in a better position today than they were March,” he said

Democratic Sen. Tina Smith also focused on racial inequality. Smith represents Minnesota, where the daily protests against police brutality across the nation began after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd on May 25.

“We know that we need to seek justice for Mr. Floyd and his family. But people are marching in the streets because they are demanding more, and we need to listen and respond,” Smith said. “They are also demanding that we seek out, and change, and address the disparities and discrimination that exists in all our community, including in our housing systems.”

Smith directed her ire towards Carson.

“HUD, under your leadership, has undermined this rule [AFFH] and your agency’s effort to oversee fair housing,” she said.

Black Americans have been harder hit by coronavirus than whites, both in terms of health and economic impact. Black Americans’ mortality rate from COVID-19 is 2.4 times higher than whites, according to APM Research Labs. And the Census Bureau says they are nearly four times as likely as whites to have missed a mortgage payment during the crisis.

The pandemic widened already existing disparities. While 77 percent of white households own their homes, just 44 percent of black households do, according to the Census Bureau. That inequality shows up in the racial wealth gap: The median black household had $13,000 in wealth in 2016, compared to $150,000 for the average white family, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. 

Black homeownership and wealth has remained stagnant since the late 1960s despite the civil rights laws passed alongside President Lyndon Johnson’s anti-poverty Great Society measures. Conservatives have long argued that is proof of the federal program’s ineffectiveness, while supporters say the lingering inequities only mean more needs to be done.

Republicans seemed split on what should come next on COVID-19 after a surprisingly strong May jobs report released last week. While Scott wondered whether “the worst is over” and worried about extending payment relief, Sen. Martha McSally of Arizona worried about a spate of evictions as the programs begin to expire.

Senate Banking Chairman Michael D. Crapo, R-Idaho, appeared open to providing more economic relief, asking the federal housing regulators, “What are some of the policy trade-offs that we need to consider now as we move forward toward the next COVID-19 response?”

The GOP’s mixed minds on additional coronavirus relief matched the mixed format hearing that had all Democrats and most Republican senators videoconferencing in, while Crapo and Scott joined Carson and Calabria in the hearing room.

Democrats also pressed Carson on HUD’s spending speed on $12.4 billion in COVID-19 emergency response funds, echoing complaints they’ve had with HUD’s disaster relief spending in the wake of Hurricane Maria in 2017. Carson defended his pace, saying the agency put out $1 billion within a week, and was on pace to spend all of the appropriated money by the October deadline set by Congress.

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