In recent years, academics committed to a new law and sociology of poverty and inequality have sounded a call to revisit the inner city as a site of cultural and socio-legal research. Both advocates in anti-poverty and civil rights organizations, and scholars in law school clinical and university social policy programs, have echoed this call. Together they have embraced the inner city as a context for experiential learning, qualitative research, and legal-political advocacy regarding concentrated poverty, neighborhood disadvantage, residential segregation, and mass incarceration. Indeed, for academics, advocates, and activists alike, the inner city stands out as a focal point of innovative theory-practice integration in the fields of civil and criminal justice.
Today, in the post-civil rights era, new socio-legal research on the inner city casts a specially instructive light on the past, present, and future work of community-based advocacy groups, anti-poverty and civil rights organizations, and law school clinical programs. That light illuminates the socioeconomic conditions that cause and perpetuate poverty, and, equally important, the government (federal, state, and local) policies and practices that spawn mass eviction and reinforce residential segregation. Widely adopted by municipalities, those displacement-producing and segregation-enforcing policies and practices— neighborhood zoning, land use designation, building condemnation and demolition, and housing code under- or over-enforcement—have caused and will continue to cause the involuntary removal of low-income tenants and homeowners from gentrifying urban spaces and their forced out-migration to impoverished suburban spaces.
Despite more than fifty years of law reform campaigns in the field of fair housing, neither legal advocates nor civic activists in gentrifying neighborhoods across the nation have been able to halt the pace of eviction or reduce the intensity of residential segregation. Moreover, neither advocates nor activists have been able to refocus law reform campaigns on the vital intersection of fair housing, concentrated poverty, and public health in the built environment. As a result of this twin failure, both fair housing advocates and activists bear daily witness to civil rights law’s inner-city crisis.
To understand the crisis of civil rights law in failing to alleviate poverty and ameliorate segregation in the nation’s urban and suburban areas and failing to envision fair housing in the broader terms of environmental health and justice, this Article maps the current landscape of poverty, displacement, and segregation in American metropolitan areas, examines fair housing litigation theories of disparate-impact and segregative-effect liability, and evaluates the promise of fair housing law reform campaigns in combating concentrated poverty and residential segregation and in integrating a vision of environmental health and justice.
Anthony V. Alfieri, Black, Poor, and Gone: Civil Rights Law’s Inner-City Crisis, 54 Harv. C.R.-C.L. L. Rev. 629 (2019).