Background and Historical Context
Before the Fair Housing Act, racial discrimination in housing was pervasive and deeply ingrained in American society. Redlining, restrictive covenants, and steering were only a few discriminatory techniques against Africans.
Americans and other oppressed communities. Redlining’s practice of consistently denying minority applicants access to mortgage loans and homeownership possibilities contributed to the maintenance of racially segregated communities and housing disparities. Restrictive covenants were contractual agreements that prohibited the sale or rental of properties to certain racial or ethnic groups. As a result of these biased policies, disadvantaged groups experienced widespread housing discrimination and fewer economic possibilities.
The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was crucial in bringing attention to the issue of racial inequality in housing. The struggles of underserved populations to obtain fair housing were brought to light by activists and groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). The campaign highlighted the need for fair housing opportunities and drew attention to the civil rights battle.
Various legislative efforts paved the way for enacting the Fair Housing Act. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a landmark legislation that prohibited housing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. However, housing discrimination was not directly addressed.
Civil rights advocates and lawmakers fought for landmark fair housing laws to combat this pervasive discrimination. The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 further galvanized support for fair housing legislation, leading to the passage of the Fair Housing Act that same year. This historic legislation aimed to ensure that people of all legally protected traits had equal access to housing.
- The Fair Housing Act prohibits landlords, sellers, and lenders from discriminating against home renters and buyers based on their race, color, religion, sexual orientation, nationality, disability, or family status.
- The federal government enforces the Act through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
- State laws can supplement, but not replace, the Fair Housing Act’s protections.
- Despite this, housing discrimination persists and can be difficult to prove. Winning a legal case requires detailed documentation and perseverance.
RECOGNIZING THE FAIR HOUSING ACT
The Fair Housing Act is primarily enforced by the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The HUD website has more information about what constitutes discrimination under the law, as well as how to proceed if a person believes that their membership in a protected class negatively influences a decision.
This legislation was made possible by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act in direct response to the 1950s and 1960s movement to end racial segregation and injustice. The Fair Housing Act was passed by Congress less than a week after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and was the third and final major piece of legislation enacted during the Civil Rights Movement.
The federal government expanded the Fair Housing Act in 1974 to include gender protections, and in 1988 to include protections for families with children and people with disabilities. Several state and local governments have added specific protections for sexual orientation and other categories.
According to Damon P. Howard, a real-estate attorney in New York City who handles residential and commercial litigation, a bank or landlord cannot inquire about a person’s criminal record in New York. Howard adds that discrimination based on immigration status or lawful occupation is also prohibited in New York City. Prohibitions against racial discrimination have been expanded to include the wearing of ethnic hairstyles such as dreadlocks, as well as other characteristics.
WHAT FACTORS CONTRIBUTE TO HOUSING DISCRIMINATION?
Here are some examples of discrimination that may be considered illegal under the law:
- When a prospective tenant calls to inquire about an apartment, the landlord says that it is available, but when the person who inquired is African American, the landlord says that the apartment has already been rented. When the landlord receives a call from a person of another race, he informs them that the apartment is once again available.
- A real estate agent refuses to show a house for sale in a specific neighborhood because of the buyer’s race, religion, or ethnicity—or, conversely, steers a buyer to a different neighborhood when they ask to see a property elsewhere in the same price range.
- A mortgage lender charges a higher interest rate to an applicant for a loan to buy a home in a predominantly Latinx neighborhood than in a predominantly white neighborhood, or steers a borrower to a loan with less favorable terms due to their gender, race, or nationality.
- A modern multifamily condominium fails to meet accessibility requirements for buildings constructed after 1991, preventing a prospective wheelchair-bound buyer from accessing or parking in the building.
- A landlord will not rent an apartment to a single woman with children.
ENFORCING THE FAIR HOUSING ACT
The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) may file a lawsuit against a defendant who is accused of engaging in a “pattern or practice” of discrimination, or of discriminating against a group of people in such a way that an issue of “general public importance” is raised under the Fair Housing Act. Courts have ruled that it is up to the United States Attorney General to evaluate what is the matter of “general public importance.”
The Justice Department may file a lawsuit under the Fair Housing Act in cases involving discrimination in mortgage loans or home improvement loans if there is a pattern or practice of discrimination or where a denial of rights to a group raises an issue of general public importance.
The Department of Justice may also file criminal charges if force or the threat of force is used to discriminate.
Individuals can also file a discrimination complaint with HUD or sue in federal or state court. Based on referrals from HUD, the DOJ files lawsuits on behalf of individuals.
If a person files a complaint with HUD, the agency is supposed to conduct an investigation as soon as possible. If conciliation fails to resolve the complaint, HUD decides whether there is reasonable cause to believe federal laws were violated. If HUD determines that there is reasonable cause, it prepares a Charge of Discrimination.
Within 30 days, either the person alleging discrimination or the respondent may choose to have the charge heard in federal court or an HUD administrative law court.
FEDERAL COURT TRIAL VS. ADMINISTRATIVE HEARING
If the person filing the discrimination complaint opts for a federal court trial, they will be represented by DOJ attorneys, and the case will be heard before a judge or a jury. If the complainant prevails, they may be awarded both compensatory and punitive damages. Furthermore, if the individual’s complaint was part of a larger “pattern and practice” of discrimination, the DOJ could file broader charges seeking relief for other people who were also affected, as well as seek civil penalties—a fine paid to the government.
If an individual complainant requests an administrative hearing, HUD attorneys will represent them, and the case will be heard by an administrative law judge. This usually takes less time than a federal court trial, but if successful, the complainant can only receive compensatory damages and civil penalties. Punitive damages may not be awarded.
According to the DOJ, both types of courts can issue injunctive relief and written opinions, and appeals of the decision can be made to the United States Court of Appeals.
According to housing and civil rights attorneys, proving housing discrimination can be difficult unless it is overt and obvious, and that collecting good evidence in the form of written records and documents is beneficial. They suggest that individuals who believe they have been a victim of discrimination contact their local fair housing facility or an attorney for guidance.
Some states and local governments go above and beyond federal laws to provide additional fair housing protections. For example, the New York State Human Rights Law provides all of the federal Fair Housing Act’s protections, but also protects against discrimination based on “creed…national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, military status, age…lawful source of income.”
Some other states and localities across the United States have similar laws.
Fair Housing Struggle
Despite Supreme Court decisions such as Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) and Jones v. Mayer Co. (1968) prohibiting the exclusion of African Americans or other minorities from certain areas of cities, race-based housing patterns persisted by the late 1960s. Those who dared to challenge them were frequently met with resistance, hostility, and even violence.
Meanwhile, while an increasing number of African American and Hispanic members of the armed forces fought and died in the Vietnam War, their families faced difficulties renting or purchasing homes in certain neighborhoods due to their race or national origin.
In this environment, organizations 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 the passage of new fair housing legislation.
The proposed civil rights legislation of 1968 expanded on and was meant to be a follow-up to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. The bill’s original intent was to provide federal protection to civil rights workers, but it was later expanded to address racial discrimination in housing.
The proposed Civil Rights Act’s Title VIII was known as the Fair Housing Act, a term that was frequently used as a shorthand description for the entire bill. It outlawed discrimination in housing sales, rentals, and financing based on race, religion, national origin, or sex.
During the debate over the proposed legislation in the United States Senate, Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts—the first African American elected to the Senate by popular vote—spoke personally about his return from World War II and his inability to provide a home of his choice for his new family due to his race.
The bill passed the Senate in early April 1968, albeit by a slim margin, thanks to the support of Senate Republican leader Everett Dirksen, who defeated a southern filibuster.
It was then sent to the House of Representatives, where it was expected to be significantly weakened; the House had become increasingly conservative as a result of urban unrest and the Black Power movement’s growing strength and militancy.
On April 4, 1968, the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, where he had gone to assist striking sanitation workers. President Lyndon B. Johnson increased pressure on Congress to pass the new civil rights legislation in the midst of a wave of emotion that included riots, burning, and looting in over 100 cities across the country.
Since the summer of 1966, when King marched in Chicago in support of open housing, he had been associated with the fight for fair housing. Johnson argued that passing the bill before King’s funeral in Atlanta would be a fitting tribute to the man and his legacy.
The House passed the Fair Housing Act on April 10 after a brief debate, and President Johnson signed it into law the next day.
Did you know? A major force behind passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 was the NAACP’s Washington director, Clarence Mitchell Jr., who proved so effective in pushing through legislation aiding Black people that he was referred to as the “101st senator.”
THE FAIR HOUSING ACT’S IMPACT
Despite the historic significance of the Fair Housing Act and its status as the last major piece of civil rights legislation, housing remained segregated in many areas of the United States in the years that followed.
The total Black population in America’s urban centers increased from 6.1 million to 15.3 million between 1950 and 1980. During the same time period, white Americans steadily moved out of cities and into the suburbs, displacing many of the job opportunities that Black people required into communities where they were not welcome to live.
This trend resulted in the growth in urban American of ghettos, or inner-city communities with a high minority population that were plagued by unemployment, crime, and other social ills, in urban America.
The Fair Housing Amendments Act, passed by Congress in 1988, expanded the law to prohibit housing discrimination based on disability or family status (pregnant women or the presence of children under 18).
These amendments brought the Fair Housing Act’s enforcement even more squarely under the control of the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which sends complaints about housing discrimination to its Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO).
VIOLATIONS OF THE FAIR HOUSING ACT
According to HUD, there are an estimated 2 million cases of housing discrimination each year. The National Fair Housing Alliance, the country’s largest non-profit dedicated to fair housing, estimates that number to be closer to 4 million per year, excluding cases of discrimination based on disability or familial status.
Housing projects have also come under fire from academic institutions and non-governmental organizations. Elizabeth Julian and Michael Daniel, housing advocates, state:
“In addition to the inequality in the actual housing provided to low-income African-American families under the federal programs, the neighborhoods in which they receive assistance are usually subject to various adverse conditions not found in the neighborhoods surrounding the housing units in which whites receive the same assistance. The conditions include inferior city-provided facilities and services, little or no new or newer residential housing, large numbers of seriously substandard structures, noxious environmental conditions, substandard or completely absent neighborhood service facilities, high crime rates, inadequate access to job centers, and little or no investment of new capital in the area by public and private entities”.
Cultural Representations and Commemoration
The Fair Housing Act has been depicted and commemorated in various forms of cultural media. The literary canon includes novels and nonfiction that delve into the background of housing discrimination and the fight for equality. Fair housing rules are brought to light, and the realities of housing disparity are revealed in films and documentaries. Media coverage and journalistic pieces continue to bring attention to housing discrimination issues and the ongoing fight for housing equality.
Numerous events, seminars, and educational programs focus on fair housing to raise awareness and educate the public about housing discrimination. Fair housing workshops, talks, and panel discussions examine the topic’s past and present issues and successes. They allow professionals, advocates, and people of the community to get together and discuss ways to end housing inequality and promote diversity.
Fair Housing awareness campaigns and community initiatives aim to promote the principles and protections of the Fair Housing Act. These efforts utilize grassroots organizations, outreach activities, and community collaborations to raise awareness of people’s rights and the value of fair housing. They work to eliminate housing discrimination, address systemic inequalities, and foster inclusive communities.