Commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Fair Housing Act: A Reflection

By Melvina Ford, Executive Director

The Fair Housing Act is turning 50! While this would seem to be a time for celebration, it feels more appropriate for it to be a time of reflection. The birth of the Act, after all, was not a time for celebration either, but a needed response to a time of turbulence. The Fair Housing Act was signed into law a mere 7 days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

When the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968, the United States had reached its peak of racial segregation in housing, and segregation was most deeply concentrated in the nation’s largest cities. President Johnson’s 1968 Kerner Commission found that “in 1960 . . . to create an unsegregated population distribution, an average of over 86% of all Negroes would have to change their place of residence within the city.” The crisis of racial segregation in housing was particularly egregious in places like St. Louis, the place where my own family first migrated to from Mississippi. At that time, St. Louis had a segregation index of 90%.[1]

The Fair Housing Act was designed to bring an end to these disparities by prohibiting race discrimination in the rental or sale of homes and related transactions. The question is – 50 years later, has the Fair Housing Act grown into its full potential?

Today, according to the Brookings Institution, Black-White housing segregation has shown some progress, but, for most of our largest cities, between 50% and 70% of Black people would still have to move to a predominantly White neighborhood to achieve the goal of housing integration.[2] This explains the racial segregation in the place where most of my family eventually landed, Oakland, California, which in the 1980s, my formative years in the flatlands, had a segregation index just over 74%.[3]

Meanwhile, the disparity in home ownership rates between Whites and Blacks has only gotten worse. According to the Urban Institute, “In the last 15 years, black homeownership rates have declined to levels not seen since the 1960s, when private race-based discrimination was legal.”[4]

This disastrous gap in home ownership is producing an even more staggering gap in wealth as home ownership is often the biggest driver in wealth accumulation. Indeed, in 2016, Whites had median family wealth of $171,000 and a mean of $933,700, compared to Black families with a shocking median wealth of just $17,600 and mean of $138,200.[5]

The National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) documented more than 28,000 reported complaints of housing discrimination in 2016. Recognizing that these complaints often go unreported or undetected, NFHA estimated the actual instances of housing discrimination to be closer to 4 million in the rental market alone.[6]

The Equal Rights Center (ERC), a national civil rights organization and operating member of NFHA, has seen these complaints play out first hand. For example, in one recent rental test, two individuals, one Black and one White, visited the same property. The White individual was shown three different apartments and told that the application process involved completing an online application and credit check. The Black individual was shown only one apartment and told that in addition to the online application and credit check, the property would conduct a criminal background check, a check of landlord references, and a check for eviction records, and would further require pay stubs from the last 90 days.

 In addition, in 2016, the ERC conducted an investigation, utilizing civil rights matched pair testing, to evaluate whether White and Black female testers posing as having similar criminal backgrounds were treated differently on the basis of race when applying for rental housing. In 47% of the tests, the ERC found differential treatment favoring the White female tester. In one of the tests, the agent told the Black tester, “Yeah, they won’t approve you.” The same agent told the White tester, “A 3rd party makes that decision. It depends on the type of crime and how long ago it was.” This testing shined a light on the use of criminal records as a modern proxy for race discrimination.

Last month, the ERC released its Next Generation Segregation report, which contributed new insights to the conversation about gentrification in DC and the displacement of Black families. Tests revealed landlords refusing to accept Housing Choice Vouchers and providing incorrect information about what their obligations are under the District’s fair housing laws. Statistical analysis indicates that a refusal to rent to Voucher holders in DC is 71 times more likely to exclude Black renters than White renters.

While less blatant than yard cross burnings and “Blacks Need Not Apply” signs, these are still clear examples of race discrimination, and it serves to keep us literally in our places. Thus, by these accounts, the Fair Housing Act still has a lot of growing up to do.

In addition to its provision outlawing discriminatory housing practices, the Fair Housing Act also contains an important clause that requires the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Affairs (HUD) to administer its programs and activities in a way designed to affirmatively further fair housing.

The Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Final Rule, which HUD issued in July 2015, was an attempt to make good on the potential of the Fair Housing Act. It held entities that chose to seek federal taxpayer funds for housing and community development projects accountable for identifying segregation and finding solutions to combat it, and it sought to provide measurable data to help guide communities in this effort.

This rule was in direct response to situations like the one in Westchester County New York. The county had taken over $52 million in HUD funds over 6 years, all the while falsely certifying that it was complying with its Fair Housing Act obligations. As a result, the county ultimately had to agree to spend another $52 million to develop 750 affordable housing units in neighborhoods with small African American and Latino populations.[7]

The Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Final Rule was essentially suspended in January 2018. While localities are still encouraged to continue using the data and mapping tools created by the rule, the rigorous accountability and community engagement required by the rule is all but gone.

Four years ago, when I had the privilege of taking on the role of leading the Equal Rights Center, one of my first communications with our 8,000 members was the simple fact that #zipcodesmatter. They matter to the quality of health care you receive. They matter to the education your children get. They even matter to quality of the produce you buy at the local grocery store. And, unfortunately, 50 years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, zip codes still do matter.

Today marks the 50th birthday of the Fair Housing Act. This landmark piece of legislation was designed to ensure the right of any individual to choose where they live, free from unlawful discrimination. The importance of continuing to prioritize this work cannot be understated.

Interested in learning more about the Fair Housing Act’s past, present, and future? The Equal Rights Center, Washington Lawyers Committee, University of the District of Columbia David A. Clarke School of Law Faculty, and UDC Law Review are co-sponsoring FHA@50: Renewing our Commitment to Housing Equity. The Symposium will be on April 20, 2018, at the University of the District of Columbia. It is free and open to the public. You can register here.

[1] Clark, William A.V. “Residential Segregation Trends.” Beyond the Color Line: New Perspectives on Race and Ethnicity in America, Hoover Institution Press, 2002, p. 85.

[2] Logan, John R., and Brian Stults. Racial and Ethnic Separation in the Neighborhoods: Progress at a Standstill. 2010, s4.ad.brown.edu/Projects/Diversity/Data/Report/report1.pdf.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Goodman, Laurie, et al. Are Gains in Black Homeownership History? Urban Institute, 15 Feb. 2017, www.urban.org/urban-wire/are-gains-black-homeownership-history.

[5] Dettling, Lisa J., Joanne W. Hsu, Lindsay Jacobs, Kevin B. Moore, and Jeffrey P. Thompson (2017). “Recent Trends in Wealth-Holding by Race and Ethnicity: Evidence from the Survey of Consumer Finances,” FEDS Notes. Washington: Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, September 27, 2017, https://doi.org/10.17016/2380-7172.2083.

[6] Abedin, Shanti. “2017 Fair Housing Trends Report: The Case For Fair Housing.” 19 Apr. 2017, p. 8, nationalfairhousing.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/07/TRENDS-REPORT-2017-FINAL.pdf.

[7] United States Ex Rel. Anti-Discrimination Center v. Westchester County. Relman, Dane & Colfax, www.relmanlaw.com/civil-rights-litigation/cases/westchester.php.

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