Fifty Years Later, America Still Isn't Living Up to the Fair Housing Act

This month we will see a lot of celebration, worry and scrutiny in recognition of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, better known as the Fair Housing Act. Although the Act has always shown great promise, we still have a long way to go before realizing a society with housing justice. 

The Kerner Commission report of 1968 offered countless reasons to improve America’s housing landscape—too many that are still true today. For example, the Commission report’s summary noted: “Although housing costs Negroes relatively more, they had worse housing-three times as likely to be overcrowded and substandard. When compared to white suburbs, the relative disadvantage is even more pronounced.”

In its 2017 State of the Nation’s Housing report, the Joint Center on Housing Studies at Harvard University reported that, “25 percent of black households paid more than half their incomes for housing in 2015, nearly twice the 13 percent share of white households.” Research from 2002 shows that black families are also 1.7 times more likely than white families to live in substandard housing.

Given the disinvestment in housing in recent decades, it is unlikely that this figure has improved. Furthermore, the impact of redlining, a practice birthed in the 1930s that largely fell away even before 1968, still damages communities of color and sets back wealth-building. New, less overt forms of discrimination have taken its place, aggravating the damage that de jure discrimination had on our communities. 

Though the language of the Fair Housing Act was known to the commission—a version had passed the House five months earlier—it deserves some credit for proposing “a comprehensive and enforceable federal open housing law to cover the sale or rental of all housing, including single family homes.” In signing the act, President Johnson said the law “proclaims that fair housing for all--all human beings who live in this country--is now a part of the American way of life.” Five decades later, the question is: are we now just proclaiming fair housing or actually achieving it?

The challenges are well-known. Despite gains in the 1990s and early 2000s, the homeownership rate for Black Americans, at 42%, has retreated to about what it was when the Fair Housing Act was passed. Residential segregation persists, and housing patterns still generally track historical trends.

For 50 years, policymakers, advocates and communities have had the Fair Housing Act as a tool, sometimes a blunt one, to improve our collective lot. Back in the early years of the Nixon Administration, Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary George Romney (a former Michigan governor and head of the American Motor Corporation) understood the damage done by segregation and the promise of its reversal. Romney advanced the idea that federal programs should be part of the fair housing toolbox. He called housing patterns a “high-income white noose” that strangled black communities, and ordered that HUD dollars be denied to communities that promoted segregation or resisted integration. In response, Nixon showed Romney the door and found a new HUD secretary, one less interested in following the language of the Act.

Unfortunately, the current administration and Congress have taken several recent actions at HUD and beyond, which are undermining the policy goals behind the Act at a time when fair housing goals need more attention than ever. Earlier this year, HUD announced an at least three-year delay to its 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule. The rule required local municipalities to take several steps to assess segregation in their communities. It was widely seen as among the biggest steps toward fair housing in many years and the crowning achievement in this area by the Obama administration. 

The Trump administration has also taken steps to stymie fair lending enforcement at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). Created in 2010, the CFPB was intended to be an independent regulator looking out for the best interests of consumers after the Great Recession, which was fueled by predatory mortgage lending targeting communities and households of color. 

Under the stewardship of its first director, Richard Cordray, the bureau returned over $12 billion dollars directly to consumers harmed by financial institutions. But after Cordray stepped down last year, the Trump Administration appointed Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney as the acting director, resulting in a significant shift in the CFPB's direction. In addition to taking other actions regarded as currying favor with industry and de-prioritizing consumers (including changing the mission statement of the bureau to reflect this), Mulvaney has scaled back the Office of Fair Lending and Equal Opportunity. These changes include moving the office into the Director’s office, which is seen as a move to politicize its work and remove its enforcement authorities in favor of an emphasis on advocacy and education.  

Congress has also unfortunately taken steps to weaken fair lending supervision and enforcement recently, with the Senate’s passage of the poorly titled Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act (S. 2155). An enormous bill with numerous provisions to reform the Dodd-Frank Act, Section 104 focuses on weakening provisions in Dodd-Frank requiring financial institutions to report more types of data that would make it easier for regulators to identify mortgage lending discrimination under authority from the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act. Section 104 exempts “smaller” banks that make 500 or fewer mortgages annuallyapproximately 85% of banks in the country. These types of banks are also more likely to serve low-income families and households of color that are subject to this type of lending discrimination. 

For years, Republicans and Democrats generally agreed on the value, the spirit and the intention of the Fair Housing Act. Reflecting on his vote in Congress for the bill, future President George H.W. Bush asked about those returning from Vietnam: “Were we supposed to tell those black soldiers when they came home that they couldn’t buy houses in our neighborhood?” We again have to ask that question, for veterans of Iraq, our children's teachers and everyone else.  

Three years ago, in his opinion on the case, Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc., Justice Anthony Kennedy agreed, noting that “the Court acknowledges the Fair Housing Act’s continuing role in moving the Nation toward a more integrated society.” Here’s hoping the rest of Washington does, too.

Related Content