News & Event
WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is attempting to scale back federal efforts to enforce fair housing laws, freezing enforcement actions against local governments and businesses, including Facebook, while sidelining officials who have aggressively pursued civil rights cases.
The policy shift, detailed in interviews with 20 current and former Department of Housing and Urban Development officials and in internal agency emails, is meant to roll back the Obama administration’s attempts to reverse decades of racial, ethnic and income segregation in federally subsidized housing and development projects. The move coincides with the decision this month by Ben Carson, the secretary of housing and urban development, to strike the words “inclusive” and “free from discrimination” from HUD’s mission statement.
But Mr. Carson dismissed the idea he was abandoning the agency’s fair housing mission as “nonsense” in a memo to the department’s staff earlier this year, and reiterated that point during recent congressional hearings. A spokesman for the agency, Jereon Brown, said any programmatic changes are part of the routine recalibration undertaken from administration to administration, rather than a philosophical shift.
Advocates for the poor and career HUD officials say that Mr. Carson, a retired neurosurgeon, and his political appointees have begun weakening the department’s fair housing division at a critical moment. The agency now has its greatest leverage to right past wrongs thanks to the $28 billion in disaster recovery Community Development Block Grants that Congress has appropriated to rebuild the Gulf Coast and Puerto Rico after Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.
In an email in November, a top HUD official relayed the news that the head of the Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity division, Anna Maria Farías, had ordered a hold on about a half-dozen fair housing investigations given the highest priority under Mr. Carson’s most recent predecessor, Julián Castro. The freeze would be in effect “until further notice,” the official wrote.
The investigations, known as “secretary-initiated cases” to indicate their importance, had been used in the past to set precedent and to put other localities and developers on notice.
One of the delayed investigations looked at an ordinance in Hesperia, Calif., that prevented the siting of neighborhood group homes for parolees and former offenders throughout the city’s neighborhoods. HUD investigators saw the case as an important test of the federal resolve to rehabilitate low-level offenders, who often face housing and job discrimination when they are released, leaving them in need of government assistance.
Other cases that were held up involved questions about the accessibility to the disabled of new dwellings built by a pair of large residential construction companies, Toll Brothers and Epcon Communities, in New York City and Ohio, according to a department official.
One high-profile case never made it to that stage.
HUD had opened a case in late 2016 in response to a ProPublica article that said Facebook gives advertisers the ability to exclude specific groups it calls “ethnic affinities” from seeing their ads when their social media habits identified them as black, Hispanic or Asian-American.
But even before Ms. Farías was appointed, Mr. Carson’s aides ordered fair housing division officials to cancel a planned negotiating session with Facebook executives, leaving HUD to take Facebook at its word that the company’s “policies prohibit using our targeting options to discriminate.”
Then, after taking office, Ms. Farías sent a one-page letter to Facebook ordering, without explanation, the termination of a preliminary investigation into the company’s advertising practices.
Fair housing groups filed a lawsuit on Tuesday in Federal District Court in Manhattan saying that Facebook continues to discriminate against certain groups — including women, veterans with disabilities and single mothers — in the way that it allows advertisers to target audiences for their ads.
Ms. Farías, an official at HUD in the George W. Bush administration, has not initiated any high-priority cases of her own, according to agency officials. And she has made it clear that she does not intend to aggressively pursue cases that are not instituted “by my secretary,” meaning Mr. Carson, according to an official who spoke with her last year.
“For all intents and purposes, this administration is stopping the enforcement of civil rights and fair housing laws at the worst possible time,” said Gustavo Velasquez, who served as assistant secretary for fair housing during the last three years of President Barack Obama’s administration.
“It’s not just the lack of an agenda, which is what I thought we were dealing with for the first year or so, but an attempt to reverse all the advances we made through regulations and enforcement actions,” said Mr. Velasquez, who now works for the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan progressive think tank in Washington.
This is not the first time critics have accused Mr. Carson, the only African-American man in President Trump’s cabinet, of trying to stymie civil rights enforcement. Shortly after he was confirmed last year, Mr. Carson tried to reverse an Obama-era program that would make it easier for recipients of housing vouchers to use them in affluent neighborhoods.
The move was struck down by the courts, and Mr. Carson abandoned the effort.
Last week, Mr. Carson told members of the Senate Banking Committee that he planned to delay another Obama-era rule that would have required local governments to create detailed plans to integrate racially divided neighborhoods.
And a provision barring localities from using federal funding to undertake such programs was stealthily inserted into the 2018 spending plan passed last week by Congress.
Despite these moves, Mr. Brown, the HUD spokesman, said the department was merely “looking to streamline” its enforcement efforts and to focus on new, neglected areas of discrimination.
“There is no mission shift. We are, in fact, putting more emphasis in sexual harassment” complaints, Mr. Brown wrote in an email. “In addition, 60 percent of the fair housing complaints we receive are disability related, and the majority of those have to do with service animals.”
The most significant fight over fair housing under Mr. Trump is taking place in Houston, a sprawling metropolis ranked in numerous studies as one of the United States’ most segregated cities, where overt opposition to a housing development based on race and income has drawn the attention of career HUD investigators.
In January 2017, before Mr. Obama left office, HUD lawyers accusedHouston officials of violating fair housing requirements cited in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The city’s mayor, Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, had killed a 233-unit mixed-income, mixed-race housing development slated for an affluent white area known for its high-end shopping and excellent schools.
HUD told the city to undertake specific remedies as a condition of continued funding, including the approval of the development, known as the Fountain View Project, and the adoption of tough new zoning laws.
In a scathing letter, HUD officials accused Mr. Turner, who is African-American, of succumbing to “racially motivated local opposition,” claiming that he caved to protests by white business owners and residents.
Mr. Turner has denied the accusation, arguing that he opposed the development because only 23 apartments were set aside for low-income families. He also objected to the idea of forced integration, putting him in agreement with Mr. Carson.
“I have chosen to stay in the neighborhood where I grew up, and I will not tell children in similar communities they must live somewhere else,” said Mr. Turner, who grew up in an all-black development.
But he might have had other reasons for opposing the project. In one meeting, Mr. Turner privately admitted that he hoped his position on the project would coax white Republican state legislators to support a bill needed to restructure Houston’s ailing pension system, according to a former federal official who attended the meeting.
The mayor denied that account.
“He never told anyone he opposed the Fountain View Project to win votes for his pension overhaul,” said Mary Benton, a spokeswoman for Mr. Turner.
Still, few Democrats have done quite so well in negotiating with the Trump administration as Mr. Turner, who began pressing Mr. Carson to release the city from the order shortly after Mr. Carson was confirmed.
Ms. Farías, with Mr. Carson’s blessing, began negotiating directly with Mr. Turner and other city officials. She largely excluded the career lawyers who had already begun drafting a tougher order — one that required the city to pay the Houston Housing Authority, Fountain View’s developer, as much as $14 million if it insisted on blocking the deal, according to an official in Houston.
But Mr. Turner, who believes the case to be a distraction from his city’s rebuilding effort, prevailed.
This month, Ms. Farías signed a new, less stringent agreement that other Houston officials eager to get federal money flowing into hard-hit neighborhoods — including Representative Al Green, a Democrat and harsh Carson critic — hailed as a victory.
But a coalition of local advocacy groups and national organizations are suing to block the disbursement of $5 billion in HUD recovery money unless the city abides by civil rights-era fair housing laws.
“If this isn’t a violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, then damn it, I don’t know what is,” said John Henneberger, a director of Texas Housers, an advocacy group that filed a lawsuit last week in Federal District Court to enforce the original HUD letter.
“Fountain View was kind of the last stand,” he said. “We spent eight or nine years documenting systematic and pervasive racial discrimination in Houston — it is an open-and-shut case.”
Mr. Brown, the HUD spokesman, said the agreement required the city to “put in place new procedures for the building of affordable housing” and a study on how to increase affordable housing in the city’s Galleria district, where Fountain View was to be built.
There are other signs of change within HUD that could make it far less likely that similar cases would ever be pursued.
Ms. Farías, according to six current department officials, has told HUD managers that she intends to replace her top subordinate, Timothy Smyth, who played a central role in the Houston case. Bryan Greene, another senior manager, will be reassigned as part of the shake-up, the officials said.
Mr. Brown, in an email, said no one had been reassigned yet — but he added that it was “well within the assistant secretary’s authority after 120 days to reassign senior-level personnel.”
Morale at the division is sinking. At a meeting this month of HUD regional housing directors in Atlanta, Ms. Farías — a former vice chairwoman of the Bexar County, Tex., Republicans and a Trump campaign supporter — told one of the directors that she preferred older HUD employees because they were more likely to have had experience working for Republican administrations.
Earlier, according to two aides who requested anonymity for fear of retribution, she had told her staff that it was her intention to root out people she viewed as “Obama plants.”
Ms. Farías, through a spokesman, denied making those statements.
Courtesy of The New York Times
By EMILY BADGER and JOHN ELIGON JAN. 4, 2018
Undermining another Obama-era initiative, the Trump administration plans to delay enforcement of a federal housing rule that requires communities to address patterns of racial residential segregation.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development, in a notice to be published Friday in the Federal Register, says it will suspend until 2020 the requirement that communities analyze their housing segregation and submit plans to reverse it, as a condition of receiving billions of federal dollars in block grants and housing aid. The notice tells cities already at work on the detailed plans required by the rule that they no longer need to submit them, and the department says it will stop reviewing plans that have already been filed.
The move does not repeal the 2015 rule, a product of years of pressure from civil rights groups and review by the Obama administration. HUD argues that it is trying to respond to cities that have struggled with the rule’s requirements, delaying it for several years while the agency further invests in the tools communities use to assess their housing patterns.
“Early in this administration, HUD embarked upon a top-to-bottom review of the department’s rules and regulations,” the agency said in a statement. “As part of this regulatory review, HUD asked the public to offer comment on those rules that might be excessively burdensome or unclear. What we heard convinced us that the Assessment of Fair Housing tool for local governments wasn’t working well.”
But advocates say the notice effectively strangles the federal government’s first major commitment in decades to address racial inequality in housing, burying it in calls for more analysis and preparation. Diane Yentel, president of the National Low Income Housing Coalition, called the move misguided and shortsighted.
“It’s terrible news,” said Gustavo Velasquez, who was the assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity at HUD during the final three years of the Obama administration. “I am concerned, though, that this is not actually the worst news.”
During the delay, he fears that the Trump administration will entirely undo the rule, which has been a goal of many Republicans in Congress ever since it was adopted. Critics of the rule — including Ben Carson, before he became HUD secretary — argue that it amounts to an aggressive intrusion by the federal government into some of the most intimate decisions local citizens and communities make: about where to live, who lives next door and how to design their neighborhoods. Since joining the agency, Mr. Carson has said that he wants to “reinterpret” the rule.
HUD’s notice argues that a delay is necessary because local communities need more technical assistance from the agency and have struggled to figure out how to measure their progress toward affirming fair housing. The agency notes that among the first 49 assessments submitted, about a third were initially returned by HUD as unacceptable. But the system was designed to include that kind of back and forth, former HUD officials said.
Sara Pratt, a former deputy assistant secretary for fair housing at the agency, said HUD had provided consultants and a hotline that jurisdictions could call for help. Many of the communities that fell short on their assessments had simply failed to follow HUD’s road map, said Ms. Pratt, who left the department in November 2015 and now works as a civil rights lawyer in private practice.
“It’s like having a teacher in a classroom saying, ‘Too many people aren’t passing the test, so I’m just going to change the test,’ ” she said.
What worries her most, she said, is that HUD will allow cities to revert to prior standards for assessing fair housing. Under the old system, many cities submitted assessments that were of poor quality and lacked basic data, she said.
Ben Metcalf, director of the California Department of Housing and Community Development, said the 2015 rule had spurred local and statement governments to understand their housing patterns and make smarter policy decisions around them.
Some cities, like Philadelphia, have already finished their assessments.
Paul Chrystie, a spokesman for Philadelphia’s Division of Housing and Community Development, said the process was critical in getting comments from the community and from a range of sectors — like education, transportation and banking. One important thing they learned was that residents did not want to move from their distressed neighborhoods, but wanted to see them improved, he said. That led to programs to expand pre-K and to improve libraries, parks and recreation centers, he said.
New York City is scheduled to begin the community outreach for its review this year. “We’re confident in the approach New York City is taking,” Leila Bozorg, the deputy commissioner of neighborhood strategies for the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, said in a statement. “This will include working closely with a diverse group of experts, practitioners and advocates and hearing directly from New Yorkers about their housing needs and how where they live impacts their life.”
The Obama rule was devised to address unfinished business of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which forbids discrimination in the housing market based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. The original language of the law also required communities to “affirmatively further” fair housing — to, in effect, promote desegregation in addition to prohibiting discrimination.
The federal government never fully enforced that element of the law, however. And 50 years after the Fair Housing Act was passed, many communities have made little progress toward desegregation, while some programs funded with federal support have had the effect of reinforcing segregation.
The 2015 rule — the “affirmatively furthering fair housing rule” — required communities to analyze policies that contribute to segregation. These might include locating low-income housing projects only in black neighborhoods, or barring multifamily housing from neighborhoods with good schools. The rule broadly required analysis of housing opportunities available not just to minorities, but also to the disabled, the poor and other disadvantaged groups.
The new HUD notice reiterates that local communities still have a legal obligation to further fair housing, and to pledge that they’re doing so. But a reversion to the policies in place before the 2015 rule makes critics fear that the government will go back to a time when it turned a blind eye to segregation, giving taxpayer dollars to communities actively thwarting a central goal of the Fair Housing Act.
“It says ‘segregate as usual,’ ” said Myron Orfield, a law professor at the University of Minnesota.
The 2015 rule was imperfect, he said, but it also amounted to the federal government’s first major effort to strengthen civil rights around housing since the Lyndon Johnson era.
“Residential segregation is at the heart of racial inequality in the country,” Mr. Orfield said. “All of the disparities in the U.S. — in education, in income, wealth, employment, health — between the races are all fundamentally linked to residential segregation. There’s no real way to deal with disparities between black and white people without dealing with this.”
1) Providence Residents' Dismal Credit Scores A new study unveils the average credit score in Providence is 649 -- the lowest 12 percentile in the United States. WalletHub compared the median credit scores of residents in 2,572 U.S. cities and Providence ranks 2,269.
2) Toy Problem According to data released this week, Hasbro stock took its lumps on Friday as it missed its numbers for Wall Street. "2018 was a very disruptive year, driven by the bankruptcy and liquidation of Toys R Us across most of the world and a rapidly shifting consumer and retail landscape," CEO Brian Goldner said in a statement. "During 2018, we diversified our retailer base, meaningfully lowered retailer inventories, and delivered innovative new offerings to our global consumers.” Revenue fell 13 percent to $1.39 billion in the quarter from $1.6 billion a year earlier. Analysts had forecast revenue of $1.52 billion.
3) Bad Projections Sports betting was budgeted by Governor Gina Raimondo’s Administration to generate $23.5 million or $1.9 million a month. Then, it started months late due to delays caused by IGT (formerly GTECH) and Twin River. Then, the state dropped the projection to $11.5 million. In the first five weeks, the state realized just $500,000 -- less than 40 percent of the revised $1.43M a month.
4) Homeless Decrease In 1994, the homelessness problem hit a high point of 5,300. According to a study by Eric L. Hirsch, Ph.D., Department of Sociology, Providence College, the number of homeless in Rhode Island in 2017 was 4,500. The problem remains but down 15 percent over the past 25 years. He writes, “The need for additional resources to advance toward our goal of ending homelessness is clear, particularly for families and for those experiencing long-term homelessness. Increasing investments in temporary and permanent rental subsidies, additional new or rehabilitated very low-income housing units, and funding for supportive services will decrease the need for high cost, emergency services."
5) Axe Litigation In Lincoln, Rhode Island, a go-kart track is opening an axe-throwing facility. The trend is the latest addition to bars and clubs around the country -- and there are a growing number of lawsuits relating to axe throwing incidents gone wrong. The most infamous is the lawsuit that is the outcome of a Fox and Friends demo gone wrong.
6) Politico Lucchino Larry Lucchino, Chairman of the Pawtucket Red Sox, has also been a vibrant political donor over the years donating more than $75,000 in campaign donations to federal officials over the past couple of decades -- Jack Reed and Patrick Kennedy both received political donations from Lucchino.
7) Artificial Intelligence is Here and Your Job May Be Leaving Think your job is safe and cannot be replaced by Artificial Intelligence (AI)?
Guess again, “Suncor Energy has announced that it will eliminate approximately 400 full-time positions at mining sites in northern Alberta as they deploy a fleet of 150 autonomous trucks over the next few years.”
8) RI Spending Up 27% Rhode Island’s State budget for FY 2011 with a $7.8 billion budget bill passed in June 2010 —the proposed budget for FY2020 is a 27 percent increase.
9) Federal Debt Up and Away CBO’s summary long-term outlook shows debt rising to 152 percent of the economy by 2049. Likewise, deficits will more than double from today to at least 9 percent of GDP by 2049.
10) J.D. Power Ranks the Retail Banks Bank of America ranks highest in customer satisfaction with retail banking advice with a score of 839. PNC ranks second with a score of 833 and Wells Fargo ranks third with a score of 828.
The industry average is 819. Citizens Bank scored 789, Santander 781 and TD Bank ranks last at 772.
11) Restaurants Closing in Boston - Could It Hit Providence Too? The Boston Globe reports, "Sometimes it seems as if all of Boston’s restaurants are closing. L’Espalier, home of the extravagant tasting menu and one of the best cheese carts in town. Durgin-Park in Faneuil Hall, a bastion of Yankee cooking for nearly 200 years. Erbaluce, named the best Italian restaurant of 2018 by Boston magazine. Cultivar, which brought a farm-to-table sensibility to a downtown hotel. The announcements land one after another, a series of gut punches to those who care about dining and the health of small business in this town. Why are all these restaurants closing? Why now?"
Courtesy of GoLocal Prov
Citizens Bank announced recently that its Community Development Group has provided $9 million in financing in the form of a tax-exempt bond to Pawtucket Development Group, LLC for the acquisition and renovation of a vacant historic mill, known as Lippitt Mill, located in West Warwick, into 65 residential housing units.
Twenty-eight of the units will be available to tenants at or below 60 percent of Area Median Income and 37 units will be market-rate units. The project is financed with low-income housing tax credits, federal and state historic tax credits and Rebuild RI Tax Credits.
“We greatly value our partnership with Citizens Bank and appreciate the Community Development Group’s market knowledge and excellent execution,” said Kris Shaw, president of Pawtucket Development Group, LLC. “We look forward to continuing to work with the Citizens team as this project reaches its potential.”
The team behind New York-based Pawtucket Development Group has extensive experience with complicated real estate projects like the Lippitt Mill project, converting several other mills in Rhode Island and New York into residential and mixed-use buildings.
“This project meets an important need in the community and Citizens’ leadership is another sign of our strong commitment to supporting affordable housing for Rhode Island residents,” said Keith Kelly, president, Rhode Island, Citizens Bank.
Since 2013, Citizens’ Community Development Group has committed nearly $2 billion in loans and investments to support the development and rehabilitation of affordable housing units and economic revitalization activities in our communities. These efforts have resulted in more than 15,000 new or rehabilitated housing units and the development of more than 400,000 square feet of commercial space in low and moderate income communities served by Citizens.
Citizens is a trusted strategic and financial adviser, consistently delivering clear and objective advice. The Citizens Commercial Banking approach puts clients first by offering great ideas combined with thorough market knowledge and excellent execution to help our clients enhance their business and reach their potential.
Courtesy of Warwick Beacon
Providence G Rooftop
Monday May 21, 2018
5:00 - 7:30 pm
By Louis Sousa, Esq.
Regardless of one’s position regarding the Belvedere development proposal, there is irrefutable fact. The administrative treatment of zoning and planning board applications, and especially of complex ones, is a colossal mess. There is a way to make it better for applicants and objectors. It is called Unified Development Review.
Unified Development Review arose from a new law passed in the Rhode Island legislature in 2016. Recognizing the mercury retrograde effect of a multi-board process, the Legislature empowered cities and towns to consolidate applications formerly requiring zoning and planning oard review into one application, with the planning board, in addition to its usual charge, having the power to grant variances and special use permits.
The legislature enacted this law for a reason. The current dual-board process is overly time consuming and imposes excessive costs on applicants and taxpayers and creates multiple opportunities for filing appeals.
One appeal is time consuming for every participant and involves significant expense incurred by the applicant and the objector and the taxpayers. My personal observation is the applicant in a dual-board process becomes a ping pong ball, swatted back and forth between two boards with different administrators who may or may not have different personal biases.
Here is a real-world example. You are the applicant. You propose to sub-divide the land comprising your homestead to build a new home on the subdivided lot for your daughter. Unfortunately, the lot will be undersized and from the size of the home your daughter needs for a rowing family, dimensional variances are needed. You don’t get along with your neighbor. He thinks your dog barks too much.
Here is a common result under the current process for a simple minor subdivision to build a house for a family member on your homestead lot:
Here is the process under the Unified Development Review allowed by state law:
What take-aways result from these hypotheticals?
Bristol’s website says it is “open for business.” Turning to the Belvedere process and regardless of your position, the process endured by that applicant shows that Bristol is not business friendly when applied to complex and costly projects.
Should the Unified Development Review process be applied to a future project along the lines of this one? Having been in the trenches in Bristol on applications of this nature, it is my opinion the answer is yes. Doing so would give an applicant a truer and more efficient and less costly path to receiving or not receiving an approval. At the same time, it will fully preserve legal recourse for objectors.
In my opinion, the fragmented process exposed from the Belvedere proposal is itself a deterrent to others making significant investment in our Town, and that needs to change.
Mr. Sousa, of 232 Hope St., represented Belvedere at Thames developer Jim Roiter in the early stages of that application being heard before Bristol boards.
Courtesy of the Bristol Phoenix
Stay in the loop by subscribing to our newsletter!
Newsletter Sign Up
Newsletter Sign Up
One Empire Plaza
Providence, RI 02903
A project of HousingWorks RI