In 2018, Marsha Wetzel filed a report alleging she was subjected to physical abuse, slurs, and verbal threats from fellow tenants of her senior living community because she was gay. The staff at the Glen Saint Andrew Living Community in Niles, Illinois, Wetzel says, was “apathetic to her claims,” ignoring the 70-year-old’s complaints.
Stories like Wetzel’s are becoming more widespread, according to a new report by the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA). In the same year, Latino residents of the Waples Mobile Home Park in Fairfax, Virginia, were required by management to pay a $100 surcharge every month if they couldn’t prove U.S. residency. In Connecticut, potential homeowners in certain black- or Latino-majority neighborhoods had problems getting mortgages approved through local lender Liberty Bank.
Over 30,000 legal cases reviewed in the “Defending Against Unprecedented Attacks on Fair Housing” show the different forms of harassment, hate crimes, and housing discrimination—illegally restricting access to housing due to membership in a protected legal class, such a being a person of color or having a disability—currently taking place in the U.S.
Published on the 50th anniversary of the landmark Fair Housing Act, the report shows the the nation is moving backwards, not forwards, in the fight to guarantee equal access. In 2018, the nation saw an 8 percent year-to-year increase in fair housing cases, the largest since the group began keeping records in 1995, as well as a 14.7 percent increase in hate crime offenses linked to housing.
In a dramatic summation, the NFHA said renters faced “a resurgence of horrific hate activity,” and that “it can sometimes seem like we are living in a nightmare.”
“It is clear that some want to maintain this country’s segregated communities—the result of both government and private market historical and current policies—which set up the perfect scenario for perpetuating the inequality many of us are battling,” the report noted.
In addition to the ongoing challenges of reporting and investigating such claims, the policies of the current administration are also to blame due to changes to existing rules and a rollback of enforcement, the report notes. “The Trump administration has launched unprecedented attacks on fair housing in an effort to chill civil rights enforcement.”
What housing discrimination looks like today
The rise in housing discrimination offenses is a recent phenomenon. After steady declines in reported offenses since the early 2000s, there’s been an upswing in recent years. In addition to last year’s increase, there was also a 14.7 percent jump between 2016 and 2017.
Of the 31,202 total complaints filed last year, most of which impacted renters, 51 percent were due to discrimination based on disability, roughly 17 percent were based on race, 8 percent around familial status, and 7 percent on national origin. Americans with disabilities have long faced housing issues, especially when it comes to requesting accommodations for housing, including allowing service animals, or getting ramps installed for those using wheelchairs.
Additional evidence confirms that housing discrimination is getting worse. Zillow’s annual Housing Aspirations Report, an annual survey of 10,000 adults in the 20 largest U.S. metro areas, added fair housing questions in last year’s survey. Roughly 27 percent of adults believe they have been treated differently because of their status in a protected group.
Changing federal housing policy
Over the last three years, two major federal policy shifts have exacerbated discrimination, according to the NFHA’s report, which specifically calls out housing policy under the Trump administration’s Housing and Urban Development (HUD) secretary, Dr. Ben Carson.
In January 2019, Carson repealed the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) Rule. As Curbed’s Jeff Andrews explained, the AFFH “sought to provide municipalities with tools to identify and alleviate segregation,” saying in short that anybody using federal funds must use them in a way that deconstructs residential segregation. Although the rule hadn’t been enforced before the Obama administration made an effort in 2015, the Trump administration quickly ceased all enforcement.
“For the entire history of the United States, our housing policies were racialized,” Lisa Rice, President and CEO of NFHA, told Curbed. “We had this system and mechanism for meting out who had access to housing and loans, and institutionalized redlining. When we passed the Fair Housing Act, we said you couldn’t use race as a factor to get a loan or live in a specific neighborhood. But we left in place the structural systems, such as the dual credit market and residential segregation, the pillars and apparatus of segregation, in place. The only mechanism we designed to get rid of structural segregation is AFFH.”
Secondly, HUD sought to roll back disparate impact regulations, a legal doctrine that states that discrimination can occur even if it wasn’t explicitly intended. As Andrews explains, if an insurance company decides it won’t insure houses built before 1950 in a certain city, and it’s found that people of color in the city predominantly live in neighborhoods where houses were built before 1950, the insurance company has implemented a policy where the net effect is discriminatory.
Disparate impact has been enforced since 1971, but according to Rice and the report, the Trump administration is trying to roll back the jurisprudence around this law, effectively making it “nearly impossible” to bring these cases to court.
Carson has previously said these types of programs amount to “social engineering,” and that zoning changes, specifically getting rid of exclusionary zoning laws, can help accomplish the same goals as the AFFH rule.
The NFHA report disagrees. Zoning is a “very blunt instrument,” for accomplishing such a goal, the report states, and while changing what’s allowed to be built may certainly lead to more supply, it won’t necessarily guarantee that housing is affordable and available to all.
In addition, zoning changes don’t address the pressing need for more affordable housing support. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that funding for public housing repairs fell 35 percent between 2000 and 2018, and that due to budget limitations, just one in four households eligible for housing assistance receives such assistance.
How to combat discrimination
Tougher enforcement from the federal government, including enforcing Obama-era AFFH and disparate impact regulations, will be needed to reverse the trend, the NFHA says. In addition, more local governments should focus on passing income protections and inclusionary zoning policies, to ensure that new development adds more affordable options. Other recommendations include getting rid of state laws that preempt housing protections, passing the Equality Act and Fair Housing Improvement Act of 2019 to add more protected classes (such as source of income and veteran status), and more aggressively tackling hate crimes.
In addition, new technologies can fall prey to old biases, and effectively automate discrimination, like AI-assisted loan assistance algorithms or social media advertising for housing. Significant legal action against Facebook, for instance, which was cited repeatedly for allowing landlords to use the site’s micro-targeting features to keep housing advertisements from being seen by certain groups of people, has led to the site to change its policies around housing advertisements.
“It’s not going to be one change that gets us out of the conundrum we’re in, it’s going to take a multifaceted approach,” says Rice. “We lulled ourself into a belief that we were a more fair society, but at least there is more awareness today that there’s more work to do. We haven’t arrived yet. We’re not at that kumbaya moment.”