479 U. S. 418
January 14, 1987
The Brooke Amendment of 1969 provided a rent ceiling for those living in federal housing projects. In the 1980s, regulations promulgated by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) made clear that utility costs were to be a part of the total rent charged. When a housing development allegedly went above the rent ceiling due to utility costs, Wright attempted to file a section 1983 claim for injunctive relief. Whether a valid 1983 claim existed became the subject of litigation.
In a 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that a private citizen could use section 1983 to challenge a housing project’s utility costs. Writing for the Court, Justice White first refuted the claim that only HUD could take such legal action. Legislative history, and the views and practice of the HUD made it plain that private parties could challenge violations of the Brooke Amendment. Next he addressed the argument that utility costs were not addressed in the Amendment itself, and thus there was no legal right which could provide the basis for a 1983 claim. White held that HUD’s regulations had the force of law, and that Congress intended for living costs in housing projects to be kept low.
O’Connor dissented, and was joined by Rehnquist, Powell, and Scalia. She could not find any legal right to reasonable utility costs. In the original Brooke Amendment, she cited legislative history to show that utilities were not thought by Congress to be included in the term “rent.” O’Connor further questioned whether a legal right could be created from agency regulation alone, and said that even if it could, the HUD regulations were far too vague and standardless to allow for principled judicial enforcement. She also contended that HUD never themselves suggested that the utility rules were judicially enforceable.
This is a tough call, but I actually lean slightly toward White on this one. The intent of Congress is not quite as clear as O’Connor makes it out to be, and I would thus give Chevron deference to the HUD, which felt the need to expand “rent” to include utilities. Whether the regulations are wise or not I express no opinion on – except to recall Assar Lindbeck’s famous quip that only bombing destroys cities more efficiently than rent control.