50 Years After the Fair Housing Act: What African Americans need to Know

50 Years After the Fair Housing Act: What African Americans need to Know

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April is Fair Housing Month.  Moreover, this April marks the fiftieth anniversary  of the Fair Housing Act of 1968.   So, this month provides a perfect opportunity to discuss housing discrimination.   This entry will explore the history that led to the Fair Housing Act and explain why the Fair Housing Act still matters.


History of Fair Housing and Housing Discrimination

Housing discrimination is not new.  In 1862, the Homestead Act offered public land to those who agreed to maintain it.  The program was open to Americans of all races.  However, discrimination was rampant.  In 1872, Congress amended the act to ban discrimination “on account of race or color.”

During the Great Depression, the federal government created new agencies to oversee mortgage lending.  The agencies rated neighborhoods with “undesirable racial or nationality groups” lower than white neighborhoods.  The agency used red ink to draw lines around these neighborhoods and labelled them bad loan risks.  This practice, now known as “redlining,” shaped America’s neighborhoods forever.

In the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement focused its attention on housing discrimination.  President Lyndon Johnson wanted a housing law, but Congress hesitated.  After Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, Congress passed the law to honor his legacy.

50 Years After the Fair Housing Act: What African Americans need to Know

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What the Fair Housing Act Does

The Fair Housing Act makes it illegal to refuse to sell or rent property to a person because of his race. The Act also prohibits less obvious types of discrimination such as changing the terms of a sale or rental,  lying about the availability of a property, or “steering” people to or away from particular neighborhoods.

The Act also makes it a crime to “injure, intimidate, or interfere with any person” while they live in the home.  Thus, hate crimes that target homes – such as burning a cross in a yard – violate the Act.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) enforces the Act.  HUD partners with private agencies that investigate housing complaints.  These agencies use a variety of methods to investigate and research housing discrimination.  Per the National Fair Housing Alliance, in 2016, private organizations investigated 70 percent of the nation’s housing complaints.


Fair Housing Violations Today

In 2016, there were 28,181 reports of housing discrimination.  Of these, 5,519 (19.6 percent) alleged racial discrimination.   Additionally, 91 percent of the complaints were about rental housing.  Because African Americans rent at twice the rate that they buy, rampant discrimination in the rental market is a concern.

Though older forms of discrimination such as redlining and steering still exist, housing discrimination today is generally more subtle.  Cities use zoning laws to keep affordable housing segregated.  Insurance companies refuse to write policies for Section 8 rentals.  Lenders refuse to maintain foreclosed properties in Black neighborhoods while properties in white neighborhoods are kept in pristine condition.  Racism in the housing market has not ended; it has simply changed.  Because housing discrimination can take many forms, Black renters and buyers must be vigilant as they search for housing.  

Additionally, technology has created more ways to discriminate.  Landlords advertising on Facebook can use settings to ensure that certain races do not see their ads.  Airbnb has changed its policies due to hosts discriminating on the basis of race.  As new technologies emerge, more challenges will arise.


Why Fair Housing Matters

The National Fair Housing Alliance writes, “One’s zip code can dictate one’s educational trajectory, income, and even life expectancy.”  America’s neighborhoods are very segregated.  As a result, Black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods are very different.

Black, low-income neighborhoods generally have limited access to grocery stores, hospitals, doctors, and pharmacies.  On the other hand, these neighborhoods have more crime,  more liquor stores, and more fast food restaurants.  Black neighborhoods are also more likely to be located near landfills or toxic waste sites.

In America, most children attend neighborhood schools.  As such, Black students in high poverty areas are more likely to attend subpar schools.  These students’ schools are more likely to be in poor condition.  They are often overcrowded.   The teachers are less qualified.  The schools lack advanced courses.

Though this is a sad state of affairs, without fair housing laws, there would be no hope to change the situation.


What Can Be Done?

Housing discrimination is a serious issue.  Private organizations like the National Fair Housing Alliance and study the issue and investigate claims.  Federal agencies do the same.  However, both federal and private agencies often have more cases than staff.  HUD currently has a backlog of cases.  Private and federal agencies need funding to fight for fair housing.

But there is hope.  HUD has recently adopted a rule requiring its program participants to Affirmatively Further Fair Housing.  Under the new rule, local governments would not only be required to study fair housing issues in their area, but to take “meaningful actions” to ensure that fair housing is available to all.

If you believe that you have been discriminated against in your housing search, you may need an attorney.  Use the African American Attorney Network to find a lawyer who can advise you on your options.