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Federal government takes aim at segregated neighborhoods

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is unveiling a new rule Wednesday that aims to combat segregation in neighborhoods around the U.S. by looking for patterns of racial bias in housing.

The department will provide communities with data that will help them identify segregation in neighborhoods that persists despite the 1968 Fair Housing Act that explicitly barred outright racial discrimination. The agency's aim with the new rule is to finish carrying out one of the law's mandates: that the government take a proactive role in ending segregation and promoting equal opportunity.

"As a former mayor, I know firsthand that strong communities are vital to the well-being and prosperity of families," HUD Secretary Julián Castro said in a statement. "Unfortunately, too many Americans find their dreams limited by where they come from, and a ZIP code should never determine a child's future. This important step will give local leaders the tools they need to provide all Americans with access to safe, affordable housing in communities that are rich with opportunity."

Castro will speak about the new rule in Chicago Wednesday.

It will be implemented in phases to allow communities time to transition, and HUD says it will encourage a "balanced approach" to overcoming racial bias. That includes a combination of targeting local investment to areas that are being revitalized while also offering more opportunities for disadvantaged families to move to areas with better schools, job opportunities and transportation.

Proponents of the move praise it as a necessary step in fulfilling the goals of the Fair Housing Act and bringing minorities onto a more equitable footing in the housing market.

"Housing discrimination is the unfinished business of civil rights," Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, told the Washington Post. "It goes right to the heart of our divide from one another. It goes right to the heart of whether you believe that African American people's lives matter, that you respect them, that you believe they can be your neighbors, that you want them to play with your children."

But opponents say it is yet another example of the federal government stepping on local communities.

"HUD bureaucrats will be in a position to decide on their own whether your particular town meets their ideal of racial and income distribution," Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation told the Los Angeles Times. "And if you don't meet their ideal of that mix, you're not going to get any money."

The rule represents the second recent victory for advocates fighting to decrease racial inequality in housing. Last month, the Supreme Court ruled that some housing laws can harm minorities even if there is no intent to discriminate, upholding the idea of "disparate impact" suits. The case stemmed from allegations that Texas officials were concentrating low-income housing in minority neighborhoods.