Supreme Court Delivers a Major Victory against Housing Discrimination

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court issued several landmark decisions for all Americans, including people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and their families.

In a 6-3 opinion in King v. Burwell, the Supreme Court held that federal tax subsidies are being provided lawfully in those states that have decided not to run the marketplace exchanges for insurance coverage. This is a huge win for the Affordable Care Act and people with disabilities throughout the country.

Less prominent, but a tremendous victory for civil rights, is the Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc. – a ruling that will support the continued progress of people with disabilities and other minorities toward full inclusion in all aspects of American life.

In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that housing discrimination is illegal, even if it is not intentional. This decision upholds a longstanding principle under the Fair Housing Act, known as “disparate impact.” By finally settling the question of whether the language of the Fair Housing Act allows for claims based on disparate impact, as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does, the decision supports our nation’s progress toward integrated, inclusive communities that foster opportunities for all Americans.

In the case, a fair housing advocacy organization sued the state of Texas, alleging violations of the Fair Housing Act for awarding federal tax credits in a way that kept low-income housing out of predominantly white neighborhoods, thereby denying minorities access to affordable housing in communities where they might access better schools and greater economic opportunity. The state was not accused of intentionally excluding African-Americans from predominantly white neighborhoods, but of structuring its tax credit assignments in such a way that they had a discriminatory effect.

At stake in this case was not only the claims brought against the state of Texas, but also whether the key legal protections provided under disparate impact would continue to be available under the Fair Housing Act.

As noted in the Supreme Court’s majority opinion, Congress enacted the Fair Housing Act of 1968 following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “to eradicate discriminatory practices within a sector of the Nation’s economy.” As amended, today the Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination in housing on the basis of disability, race, national origin, religion, gender, and familial status.

Disparate impact is a legal doctrine that holds that the Fair Housing Act and other civil rights laws prohibit policies and practices that discriminate, whether or not the policies were motivated by the intent to harm a particular group.

For over 40 years, the disparate impact doctrine has been a key tool protecting the rights of people with disabilities, people of color, and other groups covered by the Fair Housing Act and other civil rights laws to have equal opportunity to live and work in the communities that that they choose. It has formed the basis for federal regulations and has been used extensively by the Department of Justice, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and civil rights organizations to fight housing and employment discrimination across the United States.

The ability to allege disparate impact under the Fair Housing Act has been upheld by 11 federal appeals courts, but the Supreme Court has never before issued an opinion in a fair housing disparate impact case.

Fortunately, a majority of the Supreme Court upheld the disparate impact standard, finding that recognition of disparate impact claims is consistent with the Fair Housing Act’s central purpose.

This week’s decision marks an important milestone in our nation’s path toward integration and inclusion. It’s a major victory that shores up the progress that people with disabilities and civil rights organizations have made over the last four decades, and strengthens our ongoing work to end discrimination in all its forms.

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