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Fair housing groups slam Trump’s suburban racial rhetoric

President Donald Trump speaks during a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House, Tuesday, July 14, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump’s pledge to roll back an Obama-era regulation designed to eliminate racial disparities in the suburbs is drawing harsh criticism from fair housing advocates, who label it a blatant attempt to play racial politics and appeal to white voters in the final weeks before the election.

They also consider it a empty political stunt, since the regulation he’s talking about eliminating never truly got started on the ground in the first place.

Trump has repeatedly threatened to repeal a 2015 initiative that requires local governments to address historic patterns of racial segregation. On Thursday, he said the regulation “will totally destroy the beautiful suburbs” and demolish property values by forcing low-income housing construction in suburban areas.

“Your home will go down in value and crime rates will rapidly rise,” he said. “People have worked all their lives to get into a community, and now they’re going to watch it go to hell. Not going to happen, not while I’m here.”

It’s rhetoric that housing advocates find both historically familiar and particularly incendiary as America grapples with a national reckoning over entrenched racial iniquities.

“He’s flatly saying that property values will go down and crime will increase if black people move into your neighborhoods,” said Diane Yentel, president of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition. “It’s especially abhorrent for Trump to be furthering racial entrenchment of segregated communities at this moment in our history.”

The initiative, known as Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing or AFFH, is a provision of the Fair Housing Act that requires local governments and zoning boards to submit detailed plans on how they intend to address racial disparities in order to obtain funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

An explainer on the HUD website says the program’s goal is “replacing segregated living patterns with truly integrated and balanced living patterns, transforming racially and ethnically concentrated areas of poverty into areas of opportunity, and fostering and maintaining compliance with civil rights and fair housing laws.”

At his Thursday press conference, Trump presented the AFFH changes as part of a larger package of deregulation initiatives ranging from environmental regulations to incandescent lightbulbs. He promised more details on the housing issue next week.

The appeal to suburban voters represents an effort to shore-up support in communities that helped Democrats win control of the House in 2018 and where turnout in several key counties during this year’s Democratic primaries shows few signs that the Trump backlash in the suburbs has ebbed.

He’s seeking to contrast himself with Joe Biden, his Democratic challenger and Barack Obama’s vice president. Biden has said he would implement the Obama administration’s housing rule.

Fair housing advocates also point out that Trump is attacking a straw man of his own creation. The suburb-destroying initiative he intends to target barely exists on the ground.

“For all intents and purposes, it never got started,” said Debby Goldberg, Vice President of Housing Policy & Special Projects for the NFHA. “The election happened, the administration changed and HUD shut it down.”

A total of 39 jurisdictions actually went through the process, Goldberg said, examining their own housing patterns and submitting plans to HUD to address any discrimination that had occurred. But the initiative was shelved as soon as the Trump administration took power. Yentel said Ben Carson, Trump’s HUD Secretary, “suspended it as soon as he came into the building.”

Efforts to seek comment from HUD on this issue were unsuccessful.

The issue of changing the AFFH regulations isn’t even a particularly new Trump proposal. HUD in January publicly proposed a set of changes that would greatly reduce the obligations of jurisdictions to address racial segregation in housing in order to obtain funding. It’s widely expected that Trump’s housing proposal will essentially be a version of that.

But Yentel, of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, said the particular details and timing of the issue are irrelevant to Trump’s larger electoral goal.

“I’d estimate that the vast majority of people have no idea what he’s talking about,” she said. “They don’t need to. This is about instilling fear.”