Understanding Magner v. Gallagher
February 14, 2012 — The Opportunity Agenda has released answers to some frequently-asked questions about the Magner v. Gallagher case:
Q. Why is resolution of this case so important?
A. The positive resolution of this case is important because overcoming unnecessary and unequal barriers to housing is crucial to ensuring equal opportunity for all and to building strong communities. Thanks to St. Paul’s action, we can be confident that this progress will continue.
One of the reasons why the Fair Housing Act’s full reach is so important is that it’s the primary tool to hold banks and subprime lenders accountable for abusive lending practices. The lending industry knows this, and that’s why the biggest banking organizations in the country signed briefs asking the Supreme Court to narrow the Act’s reach. The positive resolution of this case means that subprime lenders and other exploitative actors can be held accountable for racial discrimination.
Q. What is disparate impact?
A. Disparate impact is the idea that some policies have the practical effect of discriminating based on race, family status, or some other category, and are unnecessary or unjustified.
When a policy has a discriminatory effect and it is unjustified or unnecessary, the disparate impact approach says it must be set aside in favor of a policy that is both fair and effective. But if the policy has a solid reason behind it, and no other policy could achieve the same goal with a less discriminatory effect, then the challenged policy stands, even though it excludes more people from one group than another.
An example is when a city decides to keep out all housing that would be affordable to working class people, and that has the effect of excluding most or all people of color, who are more likely to be in that category. If the city could not show an important reason for its policy, or if a more fair and effective alternative were available, then the policy would have to be set aside under the disparate impact approach.
Q. What were the facts of the Magner case?
A. The plaintiffs in the case were building owners in St. Paul, Minnesota, who rent their properties to working class people, including many African Americans. They claimed that the city was trying to push them and other rental owners out of town, in favor of owner-occupied housing, with the practical effect of excluding many African Americans from any housing in the city.
Q. Shouldn’t a city be able to enforce safety and cleanliness standards?
A. Cities and towns should be able to enforce fair and legitimate safety and sanitation standards. The claim here was that enforcement of those standards was both discriminatory in practice and unnecessary in fact. The plaintiff apartment owners had to prove these two things at trial in order to win their fair housing claim.