A Tribute to Dr. King: Moving the Fair Housing Act Forward

January 21, 2013
Guest Post

by Cedric Ricks, Communications Associate, and Jorge Soto, Public Policy Associate, National Fair Housing Alliance

“All life is interrelated, that somehow we’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.  For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be.  You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.  This is the interrelated structure of reality.”  Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Mich., December 19, 1963.

Nearly half a century ago these powerful words typified the life and work of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.  Today, they are the cornerstone for a civil rights legacy that not only fights for racial justice in education, employment and housing, but for fairness for everyone facing injustice and discrimination. 

King would be 84 if alive today.  It is important that we invoke his legacy as the nation prepares to honor his birth with a federal holiday.

His ideals live on and are an active part of American culture - they provide a framework for measuring equality and justice in our society.  King’s assassination spurred Congress to pass the Fair Housing Act, Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, one week after his death.  The Act was created in the aftermath of riots across the country in protest against substandard living conditions in segregated African-American communities.  It was designed to end residential segregation and promote racial integration – two goals that continue today.

The legislation also offered protections to millions of Americans who faced discrimination in housing based on their religion, skin color or national origin.  Since the Fair Housing Act’s inception, protections have been extended to address sex discrimination and the challenges people with disabilities and families with children encounter when looking for suitable housing.  We are at a crossroads - where public opinion supports addressing poverty in meaningful ways and the inevitable expansion of LGBT rights.  Ending housing discrimination for poor and LGBT people is our next step toward achieving full fair housing.

It’s time to expand the Fair Housing Act’s protections once again, this time to provide additional protections against discrimination based on source of income and protection for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.  These and other important amendments are included in the Housing Opportunities Made Equal Act introduced in Congress during the last two sessions. 

We are reminded of King’s recognition that although de jure segregation was coming to an end during his time, poverty and de facto segregation remained.  The nation’s unwillingness to address this would continue to keep not only African Americans, but lower income whites, Latinos, Native Americans and many others on the fringes of American society.  So he created the Poor People’s Campaign – an aggressive effort to fight poverty, which was cut short by Dr. King’s untimely death.  Poverty and substandard segregated housing fueled the riots that devastated the cities like Newark, Los Angeles, and Detroit in the 60s.  Today, poverty and segregation remain tied and 15 percent of the American population, or 46.2 million, people still live below the poverty line. 

Coretta Scott King continued the fight for civil rights after her husband’s passing.  She later saw the need for extending protections to the LGBT community in many areas of American life and spoke in support of policies furthering this goal on more than one occasion. 

“I still hear people say I should not be talking about the rights of lesbian and gay people and I should stick to the issue of racial justice,” Coretta Scott King said in 1998. “But I hasten to remind them that Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’”

Dr. King’s work remains unfinished, but we continue to be hopeful and inspired by his vision of a more just and open society.  Today, many of us in the fair housing community advocate for additional protections in the Fair Housing Act to better afford equal housing choice for communities affected by discrimination. 

Programs that expand choice and opportunities for all families to live in suitable housing in areas that are not segregated by race, national origin and other protected classes are being undermined by landlord discrimination.  Lower-income individuals seeking housing with the assistance of housing vouchers are all too often turned away by landlords.  Too many housing providers and the public continue to stereotype and stigmatize families using the vouchers. 

For example, the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center found that Section 8 voucher holders in the city of New Orleans were denied the opportunity to rent a housing unit 82 percent of the time.  Many voucher holders that were accepted by landlords were required to meet exploitative terms and conditions that they would not require of non-voucher recipient applicants.  Similarly, a report by the Fair Housing Justice Center analyzing internet advertisements for housing in New York City also found extensive evidence of discrimination based on source of income. One hundred sixty-one real estate companies were responsible for posting 363 advertisements for 412 units with discriminatory restrictions based on source of income. 

“There is nothing new about poverty,” King was quoted as saying.  “What is new, however, is that we now have the resources to get rid of it.  The time has come for an all-out world war against poverty.” Allowing lower income families to use their housing vouchers in communities of their choice is a modest, but important step forward.  Fortunately, at least a dozen states have passed laws with protections against discrimination based on some variation of source of income.  It’s time now to add this to our federal law as well.

Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people continue to face discrimination in many areas of American life including employment, military service and housing.  LGBT people still encounter stigma, homophobia and in some cases violence simply for being who they are.  Fair housing organizations in Michigan found that in 27 percent of investigations, gay and lesbian investigators experienced disparities in treatment, including differences in rental rates, levels of applicant encouragement, and in application fees.  In a national survey, the National Center for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that 19 percent of transgender and gender-nonconforming respondents reported having been refused a home or apartment because of their gender expression.

Today, at least 20 states now prohibit housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and another 15 states prohibit it based on gender identity.  These states have acknowledged the need for better protections, and they have committed actively enforcing them for LGBT people.  It’s time for the federal government to do its part.     

Dr. King knew that “every step toward the goal of justice requires, sacrifice, suffering and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.  And Mrs. King said in a 1998 speech in Chicago, “Homophobia is like racism and anti-Semitism and other forms of bigotry in that it seeks to dehumanize a large group of people, to deny their humanity, their dignity and personhood. This sets the stage for further repressions and violence that spreads all too easily to victimize the next minority group.”

Congress and the administration must act.  The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development took action to protect LGBT individuals and their families when it issued new regulations last year ensuring that HUD’s core housing programs be open to all eligible persons, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.  However, these assurances are only available in HUD-assisted or insured housing, leaving the private housing market space in which to discriminate. 

Fourteen months ago, legislation sponsored by Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) was introduced in the U.S. Senate and House of Representative to extend protections under the Fair Housing Act based on sexual orientation, gender identity, and source of income, and would add other vital protections.  The Housing Opportunities Made Equal Act of 2011 must be reintroduced this year and deserves the support of Congress.  Its passage would be a fitting tribune to Dr. King on the 45th anniversary of his passing.  He was a true visionary who understood that “human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable” – we must make it happen.