The Hill: Are Georgia and Oklahoma racially discriminating in a homeowners’ COVID relief program?

December 19, 2022 | By GLENN ROPER

The federal government is giving away billions of dollars in taxpayer money to help Americans nationwide who are struggling to pay mortgages. But in Georgia and Oklahoma, whether homeowners are eligible for assistance depends on their skin color. In both Atlanta and Oklahoma City, for example, a couple making $95,000 a year can receive tens of thousands of dollars in federal funds to help pay their mortgage if at least one is a member of a racial minority group. However, if they are both white, they are categorically barred from receiving relief.

This is unjust and unconstitutional. Other states have found ways to help those behind on household expenses without discriminating based on race. Georgians and Oklahomans are entitled to that same equal treatment.

Congress set up the $10 billion “Homeowner Assistance Fund” (HAF) to help homeowners struggling to pay housing-related expenses such as mortgages, utilities, HOA fees, or property taxes because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of the funds must be used to help homeowners with incomes that are below average for their local area. In distributing the remaining amount, states are supposed to prioritize “socially disadvantaged individuals” — a term that Congress failed to define.

Unfortunately, government bureaucrats quickly decided that “social disadvantage” should be about race. The U.S. Treasury Department issued guidance that all racial minorities should be considered “socially disadvantaged,” and many states adopted that race-based definition. Categorizing people as “disadvantaged” based on skin color is bad enough, but in Georgia and Oklahoma, it’s not just an issue of terminology but of who can access much-needed help.

As you would expect, Georgia and Oklahoma provide equal access to HAF funds to everyone making less than the national average, currently about $90,000 per year. High-wage earners are excluded from the program regardless of skin color. But for middle-class families with slightly above average incomes — between roughly $90,000 and $140,000 in Georgia and about $90,000 and $125,000 in Oklahoma — race is the determining factor for eligibility. (The upper limit varies county by county and depends on household size.) A homeowner in that income range who identifies as a racial minority is automatically eligible for the funds, whereas a white homeowner is not.

Of course, to qualify for HAF assistance, the homeowner must have suffered significant financial hardship because of the COVID pandemic, making it hard for them to cover housing and related expenses. That can include a substantial drop in income, losing a job, or a significant increase in out-of-pocket costs due to health care or the need to care for a family member. And a white homeowner can (in theory) claim to be “socially disadvantaged” for reasons other than race. But for the most part, white homeowners in Georgia and Oklahoma with incomes that are slightly above average are excluded from relief, while racial minorities with similar incomes are eligible — just because of their race.

Based on my experience successfully representing business owners in Colorado and farmers in Florida and other states in fighting for their right to equality before the law, this is one of the more egregious examples of government-sponsored racial discrimination being enforced today. Equality before the law is a foundational American principle and the government must treat people as individuals, rather than as members of racial groups. Yet Georgia and Oklahoma are applying racial distinctions that violate the constitutional rights of white homeowners who are penalized because of their race.

It’s not only unconstitutional but also a terrible policy. Those who have suffered and continue to suffer financial hardship because of the COVID-19 pandemic should neither be rewarded nor penalized based on the color of their skin. Unfortunately, housing authorities in Georgia and Oklahoma have decided otherwise.

This op-ed was originally published at The Hill on December 19, 2022.