Thursday, April 28, 2011

Laurence M. Vance: Is there a right to live where you choose?

  In addition to certain days being designated as holidays, the federal government and various organizations have also singled out certain days, weeks, and months as times to emphasize a particular issue or commemorate a group or event.

  Some of these are well known, like Earth Day (April 22) and Black History Month (February); others are fairly obscure, like National Cancer Survivors Day (June 1) and National Missing Children’s Day (May 1).

  In addition to being Poetry Month, Dental Health Month, National Cancer Control Month, Parkinson Awareness Month, and Irritable Bowel Syndrome Awareness Month, the month of April is also National Fair Housing Month.

  April is the month that the Fair Housing Act (FHA) was passed in 1968 as Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Along with Medicare, Medicaid, and Head Start, the FHA was one of the key parts of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.

  The FHA prohibited discriminatory acts regarding the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, color, religion, and national origin. It has since been amended, adding to the prohibition list discrimination based on sex, disability, and familial status, and its enforcement mechanism strengthened. And although it is not part of the official list, housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity is now also being targeted.

  The Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO) administers and enforces federal laws relating to housing discrimination. It maintains a housing discrimination hotline and a website where one can report housing discrimination in English, Spanish, Arabic, Cambodian, Chinese, Korean, Russian, and Vietnamese.

  To commemorate National Fair Housing Month, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which has the primary authority for enforcing the FHA, has launched a national media campaign using newspaper and magazine ads and social networking sites to “increase the Department’s efforts to educate the public and housing providers about their fair housing rights and responsibilities.”

  The campaign is called “Live Free.” One of its more controversial print advertisements features a Latino worker looking into the horizon with a caption reading: “You Have the Right to Live Where You Choose.”

  Is that so? Is there a right to live where you choose?

  First of all, no sane person would take the Live Free campaign statement at face value. No one would say that there is a right to live in the White House, in the middle of an interstate highway, in the Sears Tower, or in the local public library. No one would say that there is a right to live in Bill Gates’ mansion, Donald Trump’s apartment, your house, or my house. And, of course, there is no right to live anywhere that you cannot pay for, although some liberals and progressives might think otherwise and want the federal government to subsidize housing.

  What HUD and the Office of FHEO are concerned about is the practice of discrimination in the sale and rental of housing. One “Fair Housing” document on the HUD website, the front page of which reads: “You have the right to choose where to live!”, says that in the sale and rental of housing, no one may take any of the following actions based on race, color, religion, gender, disability, familial status, or national origin:

- Refuse to rent or sell housing
- Refuse to negotiate for housing
- Make housing unavailable
- Deny a dwelling
- Set different terms, conditions or privileges for sale or rental of a dwelling
- Provide different housing services or facilities
- Falsely deny that housing is available for inspection, sale or rental
- For profit, persuade, or try to persuade homeowners to sell or rent dwellings by suggesting that people of a particular race, etc. have moved, or are about to move into the neighborhood (blockbusting) or
- Deny any person access to, or membership or participation in, any organization, facility or service (such as a multiple listing service) related to the sale or rental of dwellings, or discriminate against any person in the terms or conditions of such access, membership or participation.

  Second, although it is an established principle of our age that we must never discriminate, there is in fact nothing wrong with discriminating. Discrimination is not a dirty word. We used to laud a man for having discriminating taste. Discrimination involves choosing between or among options. When you eat a hamburger, fries, and a coke at a fast-food restaurant you discriminate — consciously or unconsciously — against chicken sandwiches, onion rings, and water. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you hate chicken sandwiches, onion rings, and water. It just means that on that particular day and under a particular set of circumstances you prefer a hamburger, fries, and a coke. But, it is argued, people are not food. Agreed, but it works the same way, and usually on a larger scale. When a man proposes marriage to his sweetheart, he discriminates against every other woman in the world. When a couple adopts a child, they discriminate against every other child in world. When you pick your friends, you discriminate against the ones you reject. We can’t go through the day without discriminating.

  Third, how does the government know for sure that someone was denied housing because of discrimination due to his race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, or familial status instead of his credit score, income, debt-to-income ratio, criminal record, immigration status, employment history, or references? Can government bureaucrats and social workers read minds and judge motives? Two recent cases investigated by HUD include a New Hampshire woman who was discriminated against and insulted by her landlord because she was married to a Hispanic man, and Black and Latino tenants in the state of Washington being charged higher rents for the same units.

  But the state is not even sure of its own anti-discrimination laws. In the Live Free ad campaign, there are two print advertisements that feature a parent with a child. They both say: “Refusing to rent to persons because they have children is almost always against the law.” Why is it “almost always” against the law? Does this mean that discrimination against people with children is sometimes okay? Apparently so. But I thought all discrimination was bad. Discrimination laws are based on the false notion that society rooted in conflict and that a central authority is necessary to bring about social peace and justice.

  Fourth, there may in fact be good, reasonable, and rational reasons to discriminate in the sale or rental of housing. A religious person may not wish to rent his house or apartment to an unmarried or same-sex couple because he feels he would be providing the means for them to “live in sin.” A landlord may want to charge college students a higher security deposit or not rent to them at all because of a well-founded fear that the students will disturb the neighbors with loud parties or damage the residence. The owner of an apartment complex may prefer a relatively homogeneous clientele to avoid potential racial or ethnic conflicts among the tenants.

  Fifth, and most important, even if the housing discrimination is not deserved, reasonable, and rational, and is in fact undeserved, unreasonable, and irrational, as well as bigoted, racist, and xenophobic — there should be no federal laws against it. If I as a homeowner forbid another family — of any race, creed, color, or national origin — from moving into my house with my family — for any price — then no one bats an eye. And if I as a homeowner allow another family — even one that looks and speaks exactly like my family — to move into my house with my family — for a price or not — then there is still no objection. But if I vacate my house and decide to rent it — once again selectively deciding who shall live there — then I face potential lawsuits and fines for housing discrimination if — and only if — I rent to the family that looks and speaks like my family. This is ludicrous. Just as there is a right to live where you choose if you own the property, so there is no right to live where you choose if you don’t own the property. Housing discrimination laws are an attack on private property, freedom of association, and a free society.

  The other relevant point here concerns the very existence of not only laws like the FHA, but of HUD itself.

This federal Department was created in 1965. It now has over 10,000 employees and a budget of over $45 billion. Other agencies under the HUD umbrella include the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Government National Mortgage Association (GNMA). HUD redistributes the income of taxpayers to over 4.5 million families through HUD’s rental programs like Tenant-Based Rental Assistance (TBRA), Project-Based Rental Assistance (PBRA), and Public Housing. According to a HUD press release, HUD “recently awarded nearly $41 million to 108 fair housing organizations and non-profit agencies across the country to educate the public and combat housing and lending discrimination.” According to another HUD press release, “$100 million in new grants was just awarded to 45 regional areas to “support more livable and sustainable communities across the country” and to “build economic competitiveness by connecting housing with good jobs, quality schools and transportation.”

  The stated mission of HUD is to:

      “…create strong, sustainable, inclusive communities and quality affordable homes for all. HUD is working to strengthen the housing market to bolster the economy and protect consumers; meet the need for quality affordable rental homes: utilize housing as a platform for improving quality of life; build inclusive and sustainable communities free from discrimination; and transform the way HUD does business.

  However noble these goals are, there is one big problem. There is nothing in the Constitution that authorizes the existence of a government department — termed HUD or something else — to achieve them.

  It is simply not the job of government to provide public housing, subsidize housing, ensure that housing is affordable, regulate the lending or housing market, strengthen the housing market, provide mortgages, guarantee mortgages, or stamp out discrimination.

  Republicans in Congress who claim to want to cut the budget, rein in federal spending, and adhere to the Constitution should be calling for the wholesale elimination of HUD. Why aren’t they?

  About the author: Laurence M. Vance is a free-lance writer in central Florida. He is the author of The Revolution That Wasn’t. Visit his website: Send him email.

  This article was published by The Future of Freedom Foundation.

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