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Understanding Disparate Impact

What is the Disparate Impact Standard?

It sounds pretty technical, but this part of the enforcement of the Fair Housing Act is quite straightforward and incredibly valuable to the fight against discrimination.


The disparate impact standard allows people to challenge housing discrimination without having to prove “discriminatory intent” in the mind of the discriminator. In other words, it’s the outcome that matters, even if it’s impossible to demonstrate (as it usually is) what a developer or an insurance company or a landlord’s intention was when they took the discriminatory action.


Take, for example, a landlord that institutes a new rule that any tenant that calls 911 for emergency services more than twice in 6 months can be evicted; as a result, several women and their children are evicted from their homes after calling the police or an ambulance as a result of domestic violence. This policy has had a “disparate impact” on women, since 95% of domestic violence victims are women—although anyone can be a victim of domestic violence. While the landlord’s policy doesn’t explicitly state they will evict women, the impact of the policy puts up barriers to women renting. That’s the basis of disparate impact: it’s not what you say or intend, it’s what are the results of your actions.

Why is the Disparate Impact Standard So Important?

The Fair Housing Act says that no one can discriminate in the terms, conditions or privileges of sale or rental of housing to people based on their race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status, or national origin.

Even in an era where white supremacy is crawling out from the shadows into mainstream society, it’s still pretty rare to find big banks, developers, corporate landlords and insurance companies that will put in writing something that says, “let’s design this policy to make it harder for people of color to move into our building.” But, far too often, that’s what their policies do. The Fair Housing Act and its disparate impact standard allows the public—and HUD as the agency tasked with enforcing the law—to hold those accountable whose policies drive unequal outcomes.

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