Saturday Feb 24

COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT CORNER - America’s Ambivalent Approach to Fair Housing

From George Wallace to Donald Trump and Beyond

Congress intended-as the Supreme Court recently held-that the Fair Housing Act serve as a new, powerful tool to end racial residential segregation to replace ghettoes with vibrant ad racially integrated neighborhoods.Senator Walter Mondale (Dem-Minnesota) co-sponsor of the 1968 Federal Fair Housing Act

Fair housing is the law of the land and has been since 1968.  Under the federal Fair Housing Act signed into law that year and amended in 1988 it is unlawful to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, familial status and disability. This covers a variety of practices including sale, rental, marketing, appraising, insuring, financing and virtually any other practice associated with residential real estate.  And several state and local laws cover far more.  For example, under the Washington DC Human Rights Act there are at least 20 protected classes including age, gender identity and expression, homeless status, marital status, matriculation, personal appearance, political affiliation, source of income and more.

But there has long been much ambiguity, if not outright resistance, to fair housing rules.  Phil Ochs, the famed 1960s era folk and protest singer (who in my opinion should have won the Nobel prize in literature that went to Bob Dylan) released a song in 1966 entitled Love Me, I’m a Liberal which featured the lines “I love Puerto Ricans and Negroes, As long as they don’t move next door.” 

This represents progress, perhaps, from George Wallace’s inaugural address in 1963 after his election as governor in Alabama when he proclaimed

"Let us rise to the call of freedom-loving blood that is in us and send our answer to the tyranny that clanks its chains upon the South.  In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny…and I say…segregation today… segregation tomorrow… segregation forever."

The rhetoric has generally become more subtle but the message persists.  For example, in 2002 a home insurance agent reported that his manager asked about a particular neighborhood in Boston whether the kids played hockey or basketball.  Such code language does not reflect any interest in the games children play.

Reminiscent of George Wallace, in 2020 Donald Trump offered the following when he rescinded an Obama era fair housing rule clarifying a longstanding obligation of jurisdictions receiving federal housing and community development funds to affirmatively further fair housing:

"You know, the suburbs, people fight all of their lives to get into the suburbs and have a beautiful home.  There will be no more affordable housing forced in to the suburbs.  It’s been going on for years.  I’ve seen conflict for years.  It’s been hell for suburbia.  We rescinded the rule three days ago so enjoy your life, ladies and gentlemen, enjoy your life."

Recognizing the straight line from George Wallace to Donald Trump, even the conservative Washington Post columnist George Will wrote last October that “Trump and today’s repulsive politics echo George Wallace in 1968.”

So, there is still a long way to go as the extensive litigation and thousands of fair housing complaints filed annually to this date attest.  Perhaps the best that can be said is that the glass is both half full and half empty. One key conclusion is the critical need for ongoing organizing and advocacy for fair housing principles and practice.

Here is some of the evidence for the “half full” conclusion.

  • The Black/White index of dissimilarity dropped from 80 in 1970 to 53 in 2020. This index is a measure from zero to 100 of the percentage of whites or blacks that would have to move from each neighborhood to reflect the racial composition of the broader community. An index of 100 would be a totally segregated community while an index of zero would be a completely integrated area;
  • In 2012 White and Non-White home seekers were equally likely to get an appointment and learn about at least one housing unit when they contacted a real estate agent;
  • The share of whites favoring laws prohibiting housing discrimination increased from 37% in 1972 to 69% in 2008;
  • The share of white Americans living in predominantly white neighborhoods declined from 78% in 1990 to 44% in 2020;
  • Over $6 trillion have been invested in traditionally underserved neighborhoods, in part due to the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), a federal law that bans redlining, according to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.

And here is part of the “half empty” argument.

  • In 2010 the typical black family lived in a neighborhood that was 35% white compared to 40% who did so in 1940;
  • In 2012 whites were told about and shown more homes than equally qualified blacks and Hispanics;
  • Hypersegregation persists where the black population is high;
  • In 2014 28% of whites reported they believed they should have the right to keep blacks out of their neighborhood and would favor a law allowing such discrimination;
  • Gentrification has resulted in the displacement (geographical, cultural, political) of many long-term residents of urban communities.

Perhaps the National Association of Realtors (NAR) is a bellwether. Up until 1950 it included the following language in its code of ethics.

  • A realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood a character of property or occupancy, members of any race or nationality, or any individual whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values in the neighborhood

But today the NAR code of ethics today contains the following language.

  • REALTORS shall not deny equal professional services to any person for reasons of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity…
  • When involved in the sale or lease of a residence, REALTORS shall not volunteer information regarding the racial, religious or ethnic composition of any neighborhood…
  • REALTORS shall not print, display or circulate any statement or advertisement with respect to selling or renting of a property that indicates any preference, limitations or discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, national origin, sexual orientation, or gender identity.

(http://www.realtor.org/sites/default/files/policies/2015/2015-Code-of-Ethics.pdf)

Recent data demonstrate ongoing challenges.  NAR reported that in 2021 while the homeownership rate in the U.S. was 65.5%, just 44% of Black families compared to 72.7% of white families owned the homes in which they lived.  This was the largest racial gap in the previous decade according to the association. 

According to the National Fair Housing Alliance, a coalition of over 220 non-profit fair housing groups, state and local agencies and individuals, in 2022, 33,007 fair housing complaints were filed with private fair housing groups and public agencies including HUD, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and state and local agencies across the country.  This was the largest number of complaints filed in a single year.

An argument could be made that this reflects an increasing capacity of appropriate law enforcement agencies to do their jobs and increasing confidence among victims that there may be a remedy. But at the same time, it is important to note that many discriminatory practices go undetected and unreported because they can be difficult to detect and many potential complainants fear retaliation from landlords, believe nothing will happen, or simply have too many other challenges they have to address in their lives. In any case, it is evident that discrimination and segregation are central features of the nation’s housing markets.

A significant dimension of this activity is that private non-profit organizations received the largest share of these complaints, almost 74% in 2022. Less than 6% were filed with HUD, officially the chief law enforcer of the federal Fair Housing Act, less than 1% were filed with DOJ and 20% were filed with state agencies. 

In its 2023 Fair Housing Trends Report: Advancing a Blueprint for Equity NFHA called for several wide-ranging proposals.  They included a national ban on source of income discrimination.  Under the federal Fair Housing Act, it is not unlawful for a housing provider to deny housing to households using housing vouchers and other lawful sources of income.  While 57% of voucher holders are protected by state or local laws, a national law is essential to cover thousands of currently unprotected households. 

The Trends report also calls for greater utilization of Special Purpose Credit Programs (SPCP) offered under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA). This is an initiative that allows lenders to implement programs that target traditionally underserved communities including communities of color. One example would be downpayment assistance which is a major barrier to homeownership for many families currently paying more in monthly rent than they would be paying in their monthly mortgage if they could make the downpayment. One potential challenge is the recent Supreme Court decisions striking down affirmative action programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina in which Justice Clarence Thomas argued in a concurring opinion that “Consequently all racial classifications are inherently suspect.” Challenges have already been filed against some corporate diversity efforts.  It is likely that SPCPs will also face similar objections. To fight back against those challenges, federal financial regulatory agencies should provide a safe harbor for lenders engaged in credible programs so that they cannot be subject to any punitive damages sought in such confrontations.

Several other policy recommendations are offered in NFHA’s report but perhaps the most important one is to provide adequate funding for the private nonprofit fair housing agencies which are proving to be the most effective organizing, advocacy and enforcement fair housing entities.  They have generated millions of dollars for victims of housing discrimination, changes to the business model of several housing and housing finance providers, and successfully lobbied for progressive policy initiatives at local, state, and federal levels. These community groups rely on HUD funding through its Fair Housing Initiatives Program (FHIP).  At the same time, these “FHIP agencies” are constantly vulnerable to shifting political winds in Washington. These agencies received $56 million from HUD in 2022.  NFHA is calling for $75.7 million in 2024.

Phil Ochs’ words probably still reflect the sentiments of most.  But there is a recent history of organizing and advocacy that has borne fruit.  There is an infrastructure of fair housing advocacy comprised of groups like NFHA and its more than 200 affiliated organizations. They are supported by sympathetic foundations, media outlets, academic researchers, some elected officials, and more. All constitute points of bright lights that are not all trains coming the other way.


Gregory D. Squires is a Research Professor and Professor Emeritus in the Department of Sociology at George Washington University