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Housing and Civil Rights: History and Law

The place you live should provide some security and sanctuary from the rest of the world. When you have limited housing options because of problems like racial discrimination, it's challenging to have 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 discrimination on the basis of race and other factors.

Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act (FHA), prohibits discrimination in housing based on:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • National origin
  • Sex (including gender identity and sexual orientation)
  • Familial status
  • Disability

Civil rights victories were won with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Fair housing legislation took more work to achieve.

This article discusses the history of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the political and cultural landscape before the act's passage, and amendments to the FHA.

Housing Segregation Before the FHA

Before the Fair Housing Act, there was a stark contrast in living conditions in public housing between white people and people of color. As more Black people moved to the cities, more white Americans moved to suburban areas.

Many white Americans had opportunities for homeownership with low-interest loans. In contrast, lenders denied Black Americans these loans despite them being just as worthy of credit. They were subject to redlining. That means they were denied services or credit based on race. Some banks and other entities refused to do business in mostly Black neighborhoods. Becoming homeowners was often out of reach as a result.

Zoning and occupancy laws and racially motivated restrictive covenants were used as tactics for keeping the status quo of residential segregation.

Chicago Freedom Movement

In 1966, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was involved with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The group participated in protests regarding civil rights issues like fair and open housing. Chicago's marches were different from many other civil rights protests. Most high-profile demonstrations in that era had happened in the South.

By spotlighting a large Midwestern city, the Chicago Freedom Movement brought national attention to housing issues and desegregation. 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 and 1967, several efforts to introduce a fair housing bill in Congress failed to gain traction. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) lobbied for change. President Lyndon B. Johnson repeatedly urged passage of federal housing legislation, to no avail.

But in 1968, Sen. Walter Mondale, D-Minn., and Sen. Edward Brooke, R-Mass., joined forces to try again. The pair co-authored an amendment to that year's larger civil rights package. Brooke, the nation's first popularly elected Black senator, relayed his own experiences about not being able to purchase a home after serving in World War II.

The newly inaugurated senator's story was like that of many other Americans of color. The families of African American and Hispanic soldiers had difficulty purchasing real estate and housing units in certain neighborhoods. This was due to segregation and discrimination, including by real estate agents.

Before Brooke and Mondale's legislation, heated debates throughout Congress had all but doomed the movement. Two key events in the early months of 1968 proved pivotal to turning the tide.

The Kerner Commission

The political climate grew more intense in 1967, with numerous riots taking over U.S. cities. President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed an 11-member panel to investigate the cause of the unrest and report back. The Kerner Commission studied the patterns of the riots and recommended:

  • Opening doors for minorities limited by racial discrimination and segregation, while getting rid of barriers to choice in education, employment, and housing
  • "Removing the frustration of powerlessness among the disadvantaged" by offering such people support and improving U.S. institutions
  • Boosting communication across racial lines to break stereotypes and end hostilities and distrust

In its lengthy February 1968 report, the Kerner Commission delved into pervasive racism in white society and decried a "separate but unequal" America. The commission found that white institutions had created, maintained, and condoned the inequality that led to the upheaval in the streets. The panel then laid out "three basic principles" as central to its recommendations:

  • "To mount programs on a scale equal to the dimension of the problems"
  • "To aim these programs for high impact in the immediate future in order to close the gap between promise and performance"
  • "To undertake new initiatives and experiments that can change the system of failure and frustration that now dominates the ghetto and weakens our society"

King's Assassination

Still, nothing happened immediately. The federal government forgot fair housing legislation until the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The civil rights leader's killing stunned the nation and sparked further riots. That provided the initiative for President Lyndon B. Johnson to push anew for passing the Fair Housing Act.

Though fair housing legislation had drawn opposition in prior sessions, the House of Representatives passed the FHA one week after King's assassination. The act's aim was to stop racial discrimination in the sale and rental of housing.

Amendments to the FHA

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

  • Expanded coverage to prohibit discrimination based on disability and protect families with children
  • Established a new administrative enforcement mechanism for Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) attorneys bringing actions before administrative law judges on behalf of housing discrimination victims
  • Revised and expanded Justice Department jurisdiction to bring suit on behalf of victims in federal district courts

The goal of the FHA amendments was to ensure equal opportunity for all Americans seeking housing, including access to low-income housing programs.

Contact an Attorney About Your Housing Discrimination Claim

The FHA and state fair housing laws may afford you protection if you've suffered housing discrimination. Laws on protected characteristics may vary between jurisdictions. In New York, for example, the state's protected classes include gender identity and military status. Local fair housing statutes in Washington, D.C., specify "personal appearance" as a protected trait. And Massachusetts bars discrimination on the basis of "genetic information."

If you believe you've been the victim of an illegal housing practice, you might be able to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The Department of Justice may also get involved. Contact an attorney well-versed in discrimination law to discuss your claim. You don't need to tolerate discriminatory practices. Civil rights laws can protect you.

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