Housing segregation as discrimination

Anti-discrimination law is crucial to addressing housing inequalities. On the one hand, it complements and enriches a right to adequate housing approach, clarifying some of the least explored elements of this right. On the other hand, it gives us practical tools to fight against the hostility, prejudice and stigma suffered by disadvantaged groups and the lack of recognition of diverse identities and practices, and to fight for the transformation of existing housing structures and a fair distribution of housing in society.

In this series of posts, I present the main findings of my PhD research project “Securing Housing for All in Diverse European Societies: Applying International and European Antidiscrimination Law to the Housing Context”. This is the first post of the series. You can find the second post on housing commodification and financialization here.

Segregation is defined in urban sociology as the concentration of certain ethnic or socioeconomic groups in particular neighborhoods of urban areas. This concentration becomes problematic when it leads to structural inequalities that persist across generations. The consequences of segregation are best understood through the concept of “territorial stigmatization”, which refers to the external negative marker imposed by societal structures on these neighborhoods, generating hostility and prejudice against residents of those areas.

International and European anti-discrimination law, contained in human rights instruments like the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination or the European Social Charter, can be used to successfully challenge segregationist policies and practices. Moreover, national anti-discrimination legal frameworks have been used in some countries to tackle housing segregation. In Slovakia, the resettlement in the outskirts of a Roma family who used to live in the urban center was successfully challenged on this basis.

When states place specific ethnic or socioeconomic groups of individuals in certain neighborhoods, separating them from the rest of the population, they incur in prohibited direct discrimination. Direct discrimination occurs when the decision to separate certain groups is taken on the basis of a prohibited discrimination ground, like racial or ethnic origin. For example, the Italian government’s policy of segregating Roma and Sinti in camps was ruled as discriminatory by the European Committee of Social Rights.

Similarly, when states elaborate and implement housing policies which have a segregationist impact on certain disadvantaged groups without an adequate justification, they may incur in prohibited indirect discrimination. Indirect discrimination occurs when a group defined by a prohibited discrimination ground is put at a particular disadvantage by a policy or a practice without this being sufficiently justified. An illustration from the US are exclusionary zoning ordinances precluding the construction of multi-family dwellings, which prevent neighborhoods from becoming racially integrated.

Taking a step beyond, international and European human rights bodies have recognized that de facto segregation may also lead to discrimination, even without any direct involvement by public authorities. This occurs when, faced with a situation of factual segregation linked to territorial stigmatization, states do not sufficiently act to bring this situation to an end. For instance, the European Committee of Social Rights found discrimination in the lack of a systematic social housing policy in Czechia resulting in the continued and persistent segregation of Roma families.

This means that states have an obligation to desegregate based on anti-discrimination law, as their inactivity in this regard might be considered discriminatory. This is not an obligation of result, to definitively end all situations of factual segregation, but rather an obligation to take concrete and targeted measures to achieve this aim within a reasonable timeframe. In desegregating, states must target the root causes of housing segregation, including discrimination and territorial stigmatization.

Anti-discrimination law provides a final key lesson with regard to desegregation. While states are under an obligation to desegregate, they must do so in a non-discriminatory manner, being mindful of the impact of desegregation policies on disadvantaged groups. Recent initiatives such as the infamous Danish “ghetto package” show how desegregation policies can manifestly lead to discriminatory outcomes and the forced displacement of certain population groups without adequate safeguards.

In conclusion, anti-discrimination law is both necessary and helpful to tackle housing segregation processes. It is necessary because it allows us to address the distinct discriminatory dimensions of housing segregation, especially the territorial stigmatization suffered by inhabitants of segregated areas. It is useful because it gives us some practical tools to challenge segregationist policies through legal concepts like direct and indirect discrimination, because it highlights the discriminatory character of the state’s inactivity when faced with factual segregation, and because it draws attention to the need for states to desegregate under conditions of equality and non-discrimination.

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Juan Carlos Benito Sanchez

Juan Carlos Benito Sanchez

Legal Researcher and Consultant (Human Rights, Equality and Anti-Discrimination, Housing, Poverty)