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The Fair Housing Act: an explainer

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On its anniversary, the importance and continued relevance of the landmark civil rights bill

A recent study found that segregation costs city of Chicago residents $4.4 billion every year.

"Now, with this bill, the voice of justice speaks again.”

Housing laws don’t normally receive such fulsome praise. But when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act into law in April 1968, he felt the legislation, and its impact deserved the acclaim. “It proclaims that fair housing for all, all human beings who live in this country, is now a part of the American way of life" Johnson said.

Considered a cornerstone of anti-discrimination law, the Fair Housing Act has been thrust back into the news due to comments from the incoming Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson. On the 49th anniversary of its signing on April 11, 1968, here’s an explanation of why the law still matters, and how it has impacted our cities and neighborhoods.

Why was the act necessary?

The Fair Housing Act is often portrayed as complementary to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as it aimed to address entrenched housing segregation.

Practices such as redlining and restrictive covenants (denying people of color access to insurance or home loans) fostered segregation in many areas. In a now-legendary piece for The Atlantic, writer Ta-Nahesi Coates outlined many of these practices as they played out in Chicago, but it was a common story in most major American cities, too, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York.

In fact, George Romney, one of the first HUD secretaries, said in 1969 that America’s housing patterns were a "high-income white noose" around the black inner city.

What does the act do?

In short, the act is meant to create a unitary housing market, where only your financial resources, not your background, can prevent you from renting or purchasing a home.

The act bans any refusal to rent or sell a dwelling based on race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, or disability (in addition, a set of design guidelines and accessibility requirements apply to certain types of housing). In addition, it bans any discrimination in the form of applying different terms or conditions for the sale or rental of property, based on those characteristics, as well any advertising that expresses a preference for those characteristics.

Finally, threats, coercion, intimidation, or interference with someone’s right to enjoy the freedom to rent or buy property is also prohibited. Here’s a full explanation of the act’s power via HUD.

How does it work?

The Department of Housing and Urban Development is charged with enforcing the Fair Housing Act.

HUD’s Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO), one of the country’s largest civil rights agencies—with a staff of more than 600 people—receives complaints, and works with local housing agencies as well as local nonprofit housing advocates to enforce the law. It was created by the act.

In addition, Federal District Courts also have jurisdiction over such cases, in addition to HUD and other administrative channels.

Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. speaks at a rally at the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago in the ‘60s. He campaigned for fair housing laws extensively in the late ‘60s.
Getty Images

How was it passed?

The act was finally passed in 1968, after a protracted push by civil rights leaders.

Martin Luther King Jr. and others had begun to make segregated housing a cornerstone of protests and action (King famously journeyed to Chicago to fight for fair housing, and was struck in the head by a stone during a march).

In addition, groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the G.I. Forum, and the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing lobbied for legislation, in part because African-American and Hispanic soldiers returning from Vietnam were having difficulty renting in certain neighborhoods. During Senate consideration of the bill, Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, spoke about his difficulty as an African-American renting a home after returning from his service overseas in WWII.

The federal legislation was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson a week after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. It was considered the final major legislative act of the Civil Rights era.

HUD Headquarters in Washington, D.C.
HUD Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Did it work?

While the Fair Housing Act made housing discrimination illegal in practice, in reality, significant degrees of segregation still exist across much of the country. According to a 2012 study by the American Constitution Society, “fair housing in the United States remains a pressing civil rights issue.”

Despite the passage of the law, a generation of politicians from both parties have failed to fully enforce the law, as documented in a lengthy ProPublica series. There are also significant social and economic costs to continued segregation: A recent study showed that Chicago segregation costs residents $4.4 billion every year in potential earnings.

The Obama administration made a handful of moves in its final years to address this historic inequality. The Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule, introduced in 2015, asks cities to do more to protect the non-discrimination policies enshrined in the Fair Housing Act.

In brief, the AFFH rule requires any jurisdictions that receive federal money for housing to document barriers to integration and create plans to overcome them. While the rule has been praised by housing advocates, many conservatives, including Secretary Carson, consider AFFH to be heavy-handed, and even have described it as “social engineering.”

Recently, due to a case of rental discrimination in Boulder, Colorado, Fair Housing Act protection has also been expanded to cover discrimination against the LGBTQ community.

What’s the future?

Secretary Carson, whose previous comments suggest a tough-love approach to housing laws and enforcement, has spoken out against the AFFH rule, which says that cities and communities receiving HUD funding need to create plans that address segregation and inequities. He’s said some federal Fair Housing actions have been examples of “government overreach” and that there are better ways to provide low-income housing. The Trump administration’s proposed cuts would not impact the FHEO.