June 7, 2012

Fair Housing in a Changing Nation

Cedric Ricks, Department of Justice, discrimination, Fair Housing Act, Fair Housing in a Changing Nation, National Fair Housing Alliance, toxic loans

By Cedric Ricks, Communications Associate, National Fair Housing Alliance

No one profits when potential homebuyers or renters are turned away, not because of their ability to pay, but because of their race, national origin, skin color, sex, religion, familial status or because of a disability.

Housing discrimination is a sad reality that runs counter to the American ideal of fairness but affects nearly four million people annually. Unfortunately, meager funding allows only a fraction of those complaints to be investigated and rectified.  The nation’s private non-profit fair housing organizations investigated 65 percent of the 27,092 housing discrimination complaints filed across the nation in 2011, according to a recent report from the National Fair Housing Alliance. On a shoestring budget, these organizations are the first line of defense against illegal housing discrimination. The report, Fair Housing in a Changing Nation, 2012 Fair Housing Trends Report, discusses emerging fair housing trends affecting our country, which grows increasingly diverse and is expected to include a population with people of color in the majority by 2042.  According to the U.S. Census, people with disabilities already account for about 19 percent or 54 million people in the United States. That number is expected to grow over time. 

While the federal Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, familial status, sex and disability, Fair Housing in a Changing Nation reports that 44 percent of all housing discrimination complaints investigated by private groups in 2011 involved discrimination against people with disabilities. The report indicates that discrimination involving race accounted for about 19 percent of those complaints while familial status accounted for 13 percent and national origin and sex each accounted for over 5 percent of those complaints. It is important to note that disability complaints are high because many apartment owners make direct comments refusing to make reasonable accommodations or modifications for people with disabilities so it is easier to detect the discrimination.  Discrimination based on race, national origin and other protected classes is harder to detect but continues to be a pervasive problem that affects our nation's communities. Private fair housing organizations also reported more than 10 percent of their complaints involved discrimination against people not currently protected under the federal Fair Housing Act. For example, LGBT protections are not part of the federal law, but there are at least 20 states, the District of Columbia and more than 200 localities with laws prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Other protected classes in various localities include: source of income, marital status, matriculation, political affiliation, personal appearance, military status and age just to name a few.  Fair Housing in a Changing Nation reports that in 2011 local and state government agencies in the Fair Housing Assistance Program reviewed 7,551 cases of housing discrimination, while the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development handled 1,799 cases. The U.S. Department of Justice handled 41 case filings involving housing discrimination in 2011. The vast majority of all housing discrimination complaints, around 80 percent, are in the rental market.  There are also complaints of illegal bias in the home sales, mortgage lending and homeowner insurance markets. Private fair housing groups have collected data on the harassment of tenants, residents or home seekers in protected classes. 

The travesty is our nation faces so much discrimination 44 years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act. We know that were one lives determines so much about our well-being including access to good schools, jobs, health care and transportation. Discriminatory housing policies and practices have relegated people of color to resource-poor areas. Three times as many poor African-Americans and twice as many Latinos live in resource poor neighborhoods compared to white Americans, report James H. Carr and Nandinee K. Kutty in Segregation: The Rising Costs for America (p. 14).  If neighborhoods are largely closed to people of color or are not accommodating for people with disabilities what will this mean for a nation that is becoming increasingly diverse?  What will the future of our democracy look like when we already see the wealth gap between whites and people of color continuing to widen? The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of African-American households and 18 times that of Hispanic households, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. The gap has grown largely because of the collapse in home values and people of color have a larger share of their net wealth in homeownership. 

The foreclosure crisis has hit communities of color hard because of toxic loans peddled by Big Banks to African Americans and Latinos. Those communities saw their problems worsen when banks refused to properly maintain or adequately market REO properties in neighborhoods of color.  Fair Housing in a Changing Nation summarizes NFHA’s two-year investigation into the way banks differentially maintain and market REO properties in white neighborhoods and within communities of color. More on this topic is available in the NFHA report, The Banks Are Back – Our Neighborhoods Are Not: Discrimination in the Maintenance and Marketing of REO Properties. Meanwhile, fair housing advocates want to see federal, state and local agencies play a larger role in combating housing discrimination. There are some promising signs.  HUD and DOJ had banner years in their enforcement efforts. However, much more still needs to be done.

Learn more about trends in fair housing and the work of the National Fair Housing Alliance, by visiting its website.