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Housing and Civil Rights: History and Law

Wherever you reside, whether it is a house, trailer, condo, or an apartment, it should provide a certain level of security and sanctuary from the rest of the world. Unfortunately when you have limited housing options due to a personal characteristic such as your race, it is difficult to have that kind of peace of mind. The United States has a long-standing history of racial segregation in many aspects of life, including housing. Fair housing legislation attempts to correct the problem of segregation.

Civil Rights Act Title VIII, known as the Fair Housing Act, prohibits discrimination in housing on the basis of race, religion, national origin, sex, familial status, and disability. Civil rights victories had already been won with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, but fair housing legislation (enacted in 1968) was much harder to achieve.

Housing Segregation Prior to the FHA

Before the FHA, there was a stark contrast for living conditions between whites and nonwhites. As more African Americans moved to the cities, more white Americans moved to suburban areas. Unlike many white Americans who had the opportunities for home ownership with low-interest loans, many African Americans were denied these loans, despite being just as creditworthy, and were subject to redlining. Also, zoning laws and racially motivated restrictive covenants were used as tactics for keeping the status quo of racial segregation in housing.

Chicago Freedom Movement

In 1966, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was involved with the Southern Christian Leader Conference, a group that participated in protests regarding civil rights issues like fair housing. The marches in Chicago were different than many other civil rights protests because those were primarily located in the South. By putting the spotlight on Chicago, the movement brought attention to housing issues on a national arena. The summer of 1966 was full of riots in city streets, just as there had been the previous summer.

The Beginning of Fair Housing Legislation

In 1966, Senator Walter Mondale and Senator Edward Brooke co-sponsored fair housing legislation. Senator Brooke, the first popularly elected African American senator, relayed his own experiences about not being able to purchase a home after serving in World War II. This was similar to what was happening at that time: the families of African American and Hispanic soldiers had difficulty purchasing homes in certain neighborhoods due to segregation and discrimination. Heated debates occurred throughout Congress, but the fair housing bill does not pass. The next year in 1967, the act was rejected again.

The Kerner Commission

In 1968, the political climate grew more intense with numerous riots taking over U.S. cities. President Johnson appointed a commission, the Kerner Commission, to investigate the cause of the riots. The commission studied the patterns of the riots and recommended:

  • Eliminating the barriers to choice
  • Removing the frustration of powerlessness
  • Increasing contact across racial lines to destroy stereotypes and hostility

Although the Kerner Commission suggested the principles of anti-discrimination, empowerment, and integration, nothing immediately happened. Fair housing legislation was forgotten until the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The riots after the assassination prompted President Lyndon Johnson to push for the passing of the Fair Housing Act in honor of Dr. King. Although the FHA had previously been the subject of much heated debate, it finally passed one week after Dr. King's assassination.

Amendments to the FHA

The FHA was amended in 1974 to include sex as a protected characteristic and again in 1988. The Fair Housing Amendments Act made the following changes:

  • Expanded the coverage of the Fair Housing Act to prohibit discrimination based on disability or on family status (presence of child under the age of 18, and pregnant women);
  • Established new administrative enforcement mechanism for Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) attorneys bringing actions before administrative law judges on behalf of victims of housing discrimination; and
  • Revised and expanded Justice Department jurisdiction to bring suit on behalf of victims in Federal district courts.

Contact an Attorney about your Housing Discrimination Claim

Passage of the FHA was very difficult, but it is available for your needs if you have suffered housing discrimination. If you have been denied housing due to your race or some other protected characteristic, or have been otherwise discriminated in housing issues, then contact an attorney well-versed in discrimination law now about your discrimination claim.

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