April 11 marked the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, which was passed in 1968 to fix residential segregation by preventing individuals from marginalized communities from being discriminated against in the sale or rental of housing. The Act also outlawed discrimination in advertising and zoning, and prohibited banks from practicing redlining (denying financial services based on where an individual lives). The passage of the Act was due to President Johnson’s political savvy—it had been languishing in Congress for years, but Johnson was able to use the nation’s collective shock and fury at the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968 to drum up support for the Act’s passage one week later.
Fifty years later, it’s worth looking at whether the Act has achieved what it set out to do and asking what comes next.
The answer to the first question is generally no—the Fair Housing Act hasn’t fixed the pervasive problem of housing segregation in America. The Act did end some of the most egregious forms of discrimination, and black homeownership rose very slightly in the decades following its passage. However, the Great Recession hit black homeowners harder than any other racial group, entirely erasing that gain. And while housing segregation in the United States has dropped by 23 percent as a whole, it has only dropped by 8 percent for black Americans. Black Americans are more likely to be isolated geographically and concentrated racially. The wealth gap between white families and black or Latino families continues to increase.
Part of this failure is because the Fair Housing Act has the mandate of both preventing new discrimination and reversing the damage wrought by the federal government itself. The latter has been difficult. In the 1930s, the New Deal provided Federal Housing Administration (FHA) mortgage subsidies to only white neighborhoods, shutting middle class black Americans out of suburban homeownership. After World War II, the GI Bill’s housing benefits favored white suburbs. These policies perpetrated the segregation of neighborhoods and prevented black Americans from having the “opportunity to build the intergenerational wealth that white suburban families took for granted.” Despite programs that have attempted to incentivize the development of integrated communities, the problem is entrenched.
With that in mind, it is a little simplistic to blame the continued segregation in our communities on the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), particularly in light of Secretary Ben Carson inclination to under-enforce. HUD’s own troubles have persisted since its creation in 1965 under Johnson. While Johnson attempted to open the housing market to people of color, President Nixon reversed his policies. Nixon’s work reducing government-backed loans allowed predatory lenders to fill the void, charging black customers more at every stage of the home-buying process. The legacy of the segregated FHA mortgages continued. From its creation to present day, HUD has only ever withheld funding from a jurisdiction for violations of the fair housing act twice. These statements are not to exculpate HUD’s newer policies, discussed below, which have been appalling—they are just to point out that the problem is bigger than one administration.
However, HUD under the Trump administration has certainly not prioritized the goal of increasing access to housing and integrated neighborhoods. The Trump administration could never have been expected to be a fair housing champion—it should be noted that President Trump’s own real estate company was investigated in the 1970s for steering minority tenants away from their housing complexes. In his role as secretary, Carson has dramatically scaled back HUD enforcement by freezing high-priority investigations of housing discrimination. Carson also tried to reverse a program that made it easier for recipients of housing vouchers to move to affluent neighborhoods, which was struck down by the courts in December 2017. When he suspended an Obama-era rule requiring communities to come up with plans to “affirmatively further” fair housing, Carson claimed that “just throwing money at programs . . . doesn’t work.” The thing is, it does work—government incentives to desegregate housing and create more inclusive communities have been proven to improve outcomes for the people involved.
So, turning to the question of what comes next, it is clear the Trump administration will continue to defund programs that they view as “social engineering,” regardless of who is at the helm of HUD. The administration did announce the creation of a task force “aimed at combatting sexual harassment in housing,” but its mandate remains to be seen. However, there is still work that can be done. The first thing is continuing to sue perpetrators of housing discrimination and supporting those involved in lawsuits. The National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA), among others, consistently sues organizations and developers for discriminating in the sale or rental of housing in violation of the Fair Housing Act, including Facebook. Additionally, we should focus on the work of cities and community organizations. For example, in Buffalo, NY, community organizations have been working to increase community land ownership, with parcels devoted to affordable housing as a safeguard against displacement and gentrification. At times, these projects are funded by settlement money from fair housing law suits.
While it may be difficult to imagine success in the future without robust federal support, it’s important to remember that for most of the Fair Housing Act’s history, federal support has been weak. Many administrations have been unwilling or unable to confront the government’s own racist legacy. This is a fight that’s still being fought by community activists, lawyers, and nonprofits. With that in mind, we shouldn’t let the latest political shifts discourage us from continuing to push forward.