On April 11, 1968—seven days after the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—President Lyndon Johnson signed into law Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, commonly known as the Fair Housing Act. The legislation was co-sponsored by then-Senators Edward Brooke and Walter Mondale and advanced an ambitious and progressive vision: to eliminate housing discrimination and residential segregation in this country.
The act originally prohibited discrimination in the sale, rental and financing of housing based on color, race, national origin and religion. Later, the act was amended to prohibit discrimination based on sex, disability and familial status
In part due to an energetic, national enforcement strategy by the Department of Justice agency in the 1970s, in the 10 years after the act’s passage, an African American’s likelihood of being denied housing in white areas fell by more than two-thirds. For certain, there are by far fewer overt acts of discrimination like those seen when the FHA was passed. Housing discrimination is now cloaked in different dress.
“We moved from the overt covenants in deeds that prevented people from owning properties in white neighborhoods to racially discriminatory lending practices,” says University of Notre Dame Law School Professor Judith Fox, who directs the law school’s Economic Justice Clinic. “If you could find someone to sell you a home, you could not find a bank to lend you the money. With the sub-prime mortgage crisis, this process flipped. Banks were all too eager to offer minorities bad loans, and reverse-redlining was born. The generation of wealth gained in the immediate aftermath of the Fair Housing Act was soon lost in the recession of 2008.”
Looking back, many civil rights activists view the Fair Housing Act largely as a failure because Black/white housing segregation remains the norm in too much of urban America. If you measure discrimination by how many segregated communities there are in the United States now compared to how many there were 50 years ago, there hasn’t been much progress. In most cities many neighborhoods remain largely Black, largely Latino or largely White.
However, fair housing laws did bring about substantial integration in a number of major cities and those cities where integration was most successful, the results are significant decrease in the economic, health and educational attainment gaps between Whites and Blacks.
Metropolitan Black/White segregation is commonly measured by an “index of dissimilarity.” A score of 100 corresponds to complete segregation, and 0 corresponds to complete integration. Many major metro areas — New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, St. Louis — have indices above 75 or even 80. But a significant number of other metro areas do much better: San Diego, Seattle, San Antonio and Nashville, for example, have indices between 50 and 65.
On nearly every dimension, social and economic conditions are far better for African Americans in moderate- versus high-segregation cities, in San Diego rather than, say, St. Louis. The benefits of lower segregation especially accrue to low- and moderate-income Blacks. In high-segregation areas, unemployment among young Black men averages about three times the White rate; in moderately segregated areas, it’s 1 1/2 times. Black couples that include at least one college graduate have earnings that average about 75% of White earnings in high-segregation cities; it’s 90% in moderately segregated areas. Even age-adjusted death rates differ: They are 42% higher for Blacks than Whites in highly segregated cities, in moderately segregated cities the gap is 14%.
Metropolitan housing integration produces greater — and lasting — school integration; it greatly reduces the concentration of poverty in black communities; it puts blacks closer to job opportunities. It is powerfully associated with lower rates of violent crime, a smaller test-score gap between black and white students, and better health outcomes. Of course, all these developments reinforce one another, which is why the racial gaps in integrated areas continue to narrow over time.
In the 1970s, with the threat of legal action looming, Black mobility increased sharply, but in some metropolitan areas, it mostly affected White neighborhoods very close to existing Black enclaves. Even if whites did not flee (and they fled less often than is commonly supposed), the rapid and sustained increase in Black demand tended to tip these neighborhoods into resegregation. The net result was more housing for Blacks, but no decrease in overall segregation.
The decrease came where Black moves were dispersed across many white neighborhoods and where formerly majority-Black enclaves attracted some white and Latino migrants (a precursor of contemporary gentrification). Data show that once a “critical mass” of stably integrated neighborhoods existed, they attracted more residents of all races who liked integration, and the cycle toward lasting desegregation was underway.
Obama and Trump Eras
Recognizing limited change in housing patterns on the local level, the Obama administration intervened to compel local officials to do more to break down residential segregation. Obama issued a regulation requiring communities that received federal housing assistance to study their residential housing patterns, identify instances of continued segregation and discrimination, and offer remediation plans to HUD.
On the eve of the 50th Anniversary of the Fair Housing Law, current HUD Secretary Ben Carson announced his department would push back the deadline to at least 2020 for local communities to comply with the Obama-era rule. Practically speaking, the delay is a retreat from demanding community leaders follow the law. What housing advocate really rear is that Carson will completely unravel the rule.
Still, urged by progressive local elected officials, some cities are still moving ahead with their plans. Their solutions for putting an end permanently to the patterns of housing segregation that still exist in this country will require some creative thinking and solutions. Contemporary fair-housing battles often focus on where to place subsidized housing, or on quicker processing of discrimination complaints, both are important, but new housing models will move beyond those two issues.
Fair housing remains important. It is not just an important tool for eliminating discrimination; it also helps to strengthen families, communities, businesses, and our overall economy.