Democratic presidential candidates Mike Bloomberg, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar at the Feb. 19 primary debate in Las Vegas.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images Democratic presidential candidates Mike Bloomberg, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar at the Feb. 19 primary debate in Las Vegas.

There’s a battle underway in Washington, D.C., and its outcome will have a profound affect on the architecture profession and the built environment in the United States. I’m not talking about the misguided effort to mandate a single style for federal buildings or the dangerous political resistance to action on climate change—important as those fights are. I’m referring to another struggle, perhaps less mediagenic, over regulatory enforcement of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) of 1977.

Sound like a wonktastic snoozefest? Maybe so, but hundreds of billions in essential private development dollars may be at stake. The CRA was enacted to counteract redlining, a pernicious, decades-long practice whereby the federal government and the financial sector collaborated to deny loans in poor, largely black neighborhoods; it effectively requires banks to finance affordable housing, small businesses, and other beneficial initiatives that they once spurned.

The CRA is more than four decades old, so a review of the regulations is appropriate. Unfortunately, the proposal from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency (OCC) and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), two of the three governmental bodies with oversight authority, would undermine protections against redlining, creating loopholes for banks to once again shut the door on communities they deem undesirable. The third body, the Federal Reserve Board, opposes the OCC and FDIC plan.

The OCC and FDIC have a precedent of sorts. The Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder overturned provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 because, according to the majority opinion, “the conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions.” The majority’s faith in human progress was misplaced. In the seven years since the ruling, some 23 states have limited minority access to the polls.

I fear a comparable outcome if CRA obligations are weakened. Even under the current regulations, people of color find it much harder to obtain credit for themselves and their businesses than whites do, according to The Center for Investigative Reporting. The watchdog group also says that the discrimination is bipartisan: While the Trump administration is overtly pushing to weaken CRA regulations, the Obama administration quietly failed to enforce them.

The American promise of equal opportunity is under siege. Forty-odd years of deregulation and regulatory capture, tax avoidance and evasion, corporate welfare, monopolization, mass incarceration, deunionization, and disinformation have led to unconscionable gaps in wealth, income, and political agency between the powerful and everyone else.

There’s no good reason for it. There’s certainly no lack of cash. According to Brookings, if total 2018 household wealth in the U.S. were divided evenly, we’d each be worth $343,000. Instead, so much money is floating around up top that big businesses and rich folk don’t know what to do with it. Hence financial bubbles like WeWork. Instead of chasing unicorns, we should get serious and invest in the future, through infrastructure development, accessible education and health care, support for small businesses and vulnerable individuals, and, above all, the mitigation of climate change. Such are the design problems of our time.

The OCC and FDIC plan is open for public comment until March 9.