429 U.S. 252 (1977), argued 13 Oct. 1976, decided 11 Jan. 1977 by vote of 7 to 1; Powell for the Court, Marshall and Brennan concurring in part and dissenting in part, White in dissent; Stevens not participating. The case originated in an attempt by the Metropolitan Housing Development Corp. (MHDC), a nonprofit developer, to build racially integrated low- and moderate-income housing in the Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights. The village Board of Trustees denied MHDC's rezoning petition, thus preventing it from building. MHDC then brought suit in federal district court alleging that the denial was racially discriminatory in violation of both the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and federal law. The district court upheld the village's decision but was reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit.
In the Supreme Court the crucial issue was the standard for proving racial discrimination under the Fourteenth Amendment; the decision focused on the difference between a racially disproportionate impact and racially discriminatory intent. The Court, following Washington v. Davis (1976), rejected a showing only of racially disproportionate impact. It held that proof of racially discriminatory intent or purpose was necessary to make out a constitutional violation. Examining the historical background of the zoning decision, the sequence of events leading up to it, and the official minutes, the Court held that the original plaintiffs had failed to prove that racial discrimination was a motivating factor in the village's decision. The court of appeals’ decision was reversed and remanded for consideration of the statutory claim.
The decision has been criticized for giving insufficient direction as to what counts as proof of discriminatory purpose and for maintaining high barriers for overcoming housing discrimination, both locally and nationally. When the case was argued, only 27 (.04 percent) of the village's 64,000 residents were African-American. The village estimates that in 1989 that number had risen only to approximately 300 (.4 percent) of its more than 75,000 residents.
Gerald N. Rosenberg