Discrimination in Housing Impedes Effort to Overcome Inequality

January 27, 2012
Guest Post

By Hilary O. Shelton, Director, NAACP Washington Bureau & Senior Vice President for Advocacy and Policy

In January, communities throughout the United States join together to commemorate the life and contributions of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  It is around Dr. King’s birthday when many schoolchildren embrace the Civil Rights Movement, recite parts of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, and truly understand that they can be whatever and whomever they want to be.  

Most of us know the tragic tale of Dr. King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, but far too many people don’t know that Dr. King’s final legislative victory is one of his most enduring but largely ignored achievements.  Much of his work during the Chicago Freedom Movement in 1966 was an initiative to ensure just and equal access to quality housing for African-Americans. Dr. King’s historic march in Marquette Park laid the groundwork for our nation’s fair housing laws.  One week after Dr. King’s death, Congress passed the federal Fair Housing Act, a law that protects us from discrimination in housing based on race, religion, color, sex, national origin, familial status and disability. 

The Fair Housing Act codifies the affirmative responsibility to end segregation and promote integration throughout the United States.  The National Fair Housing Alliance’s (NFHA) issue brief released this week by ACS, “The Promise of the Fair Housing Act and the Role of Fair Housing Organizations,” discusses Dr. King’s quest for fair housing and how fair housing organizations do their part to keep The Dream alive. 

Today, the Fair Housing Act is a well-crafted tool that must continue to be sharpened in a nation that continues to grow and diversify.  Census projections indicate that in less than 30 years, our nation will be made up mostly of people of color. Yet, the nation our children grow up in today remains strikingly similar in some respects to the nation Dr. King was trying to change.  At the end of every school day, most children of all backgrounds return to segregated neighborhoods.  In neighborhoods of color, there are significantly fewer opportunities for children to reach their true potential.

Decades of research on residential segregation in the U.S. have revealed that neighborhoods of color have much lower homeownership rates, lower income levels, higher unemployment rates and higher poverty than those where white children live.  Segregation also continues to be a predictor of significant health disparities and 2010 census data show that the relationship between segregation and infant mortality disparities has intensified. Today, segregation and fair housing are still pressing civil rights issues. 

We’ve also seen the disproportionate effects of the economic crisis on people of color as symptomatic of segregation and housing discrimination. Since the height of the subprime mortgage lending boom, more than 8.9 million families have lost their homes. African-Americans and Latinos are 75 percent more likely to experience foreclosure, and properties lost to foreclosure in minority neighborhoods are less well-maintained compared to foreclosed homes in predominantly white neighborhoods.

“The Promise of the Fair Housing Act and the Role of Fair Housing Organizations,” discusses the urgency of increasing enforcement of the Fair Housing Act and the expansion of fair housing rights. NFHA estimates that at least 11,000 acts of housing discrimination occur each day in the U.S while only one percent of all incidents of housing discrimination are reported.  At the same time, fair housing organizations do not receive sufficient funding to tackle the full extent of housing discrimination in the U.S. In addition, the Fair Housing Act should be updated to protect all people by adding sexual orientation and gender identity, source of income, and marital status as protected classes, among other fixes. We need more fair housing enforcement simply for the sake of preparing our increasingly diverse children to be competitive in the world of the future that lies ahead of them. NFHA provides detailed policy recommendations for how to do so. 

As we honor the life of Dr. King, we must do so by carrying out his unfinished work in every possible way. Segregation and housing discrimination remain significant barriers to the prosperity of every individual and our nation as a whole. Until we can break down the persistence of segregation and housing discrimination, we cannot truly become a fully equal nation. Please take a moment to read NFHA’s issue brief, “The Promise of the Fair Housing Act and the Role of Fair Housing Organizations,” to learn more about America’s critical fair housing needs. 

[image via Seattle Municipal Archives]