Fair Housing Is Still the Issue

August 29, 2011
Guest Post

This post is part of an ACSblog symposium in honor of the unveiling of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial. The author, Cedric Ricks, is the communications associate of the National Fair Housing Alliance.

I still believe that freedom is the bonus you receive for telling the truth.  You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.  And I do not see how we will ever solve the turbulent problem of race confronting our nation until there is an honest confrontation with it and a willing search for the truth and a willingness to admit the truth when we discover it. -  Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Grosse Pointe, Mich., on March 14, 1968

One week after the assassination of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the federal Fair Housing Act Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968.  It took the loss of King and the resulting uprising to convince a timid Congress to act on behalf of millions of African-Americans living in substandard housing conditions in segregated communities. It’s fitting that more than 40 years later the nation now honors Dr. King with a memorial on the National Mall in the nation’s capital.

The tribute is a time for celebration at the National Fair Housing Alliance, but also a reminder that despite some real successes much of King’s vision, especially in achieving fairness in housing, remains a work in progress. In January 1966, Dr. King moved his family to the tenements on Chicago’s West side to dramatize the city’s deplorable segregated housing conditions. King used the rental experiences of black and white volunteers to prove that realtors were systematically denying African-Americans access to housing in Chicago. His call for making Chicago an “Open City” for housing and the subsequent riots that followed days later in the summer of 1966 were a sobering reminder for Americans that discrimination and bias in housing existed in areas other than the South.

In weeks leading up to his death, Dr. King spoke of the sad dualism of American society that allowed millions of people to “have the milk of prosperity and honey of equality” while millions of other citizens lived a daily ugliness that turned hope “into the fatigue of despair.” He described an America where almost 40 percent of African-American families lived in substandard housing conditions, thousands of youth attended inferior segregated schools and were deprived of an adequate education and a society that allowed millions to languish in unemployment or toil long hours for earnings that didn’t offer a livable wage. Life is arguably different, yet also strikingly similar for millions of Americans more than four decades after King’s inspiring journey.

The Fair Housing Act grew out of the Civil Right era, but it has been expanded over the years to protect individuals from discrimination based not only on race, color, and national origin, but also religion, sex, disability and familial status. In the future, protections may also be offered based on source of income, gender identity and sexual orientation. The law applies to housing and housing-related activities, including apartment and home rentals, real estate sales, mortgage lending and homeowners insurance.  But the act does more than just eliminate discrimination - its initial and continuing intent is to promote integration.

Today, legalized segregation in housing and many other aspects of American life has fallen away. But even with our steps toward equality 65 percent of Americans living in metropolitan areas still reside in areas of high segregation. There are also at least four million acts of housing discrimination every year. We know that where one lives still determines so much in life including education, access to health care and job opportunities.

Homeownership has long been the cornerstone of living the American Dream and it’s a measure of how well communities of color are advancing in society. Notably, African-American homeownership has doubled from 22.8 percent in 1940 to 45.9 in 2010 while white homeownership rose from 45.6 percent in 1940 to 74.4 percent in 2010. (Wilhelmina A. Leigh and Danielle Huff.  “African Americans and Homeownership: Separate and Unequal, 1940 to 2006.  November 2007 – Brief # 1.  p.3. Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.  The State of the Nation’s Housing 2011.  Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, p. 36.) (About 47.5 percent of Latinos and 58.2 percent of Asian-Americans owned a home in 2010, The State of the Nation’s Housing 2011.  Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, p. 36.) The long trend in homeownership has been upward overall, but in recent years a growing national housing crisis is cutting the gains made in communities of color and increasing the disparity with whites in wealth acquisition.

Owning a home is an important way to build wealth and become part of the American middle class. But that pathway to security is seriously imperiled for some communities of color which have seen foreclosure rates - 7.69 percent for Latino and 7.90 percent for African-Americans - that are significantly higher than for whites at 4.52 percent or for Asian-Americans at 4.6 percent. The Center for Responsible Lending reports that African-American and Latino communities have lost $194 billion and $177 billion, respectively, in wealth due to the depreciation in values of property located near foreclosures.

Much of the current housing crisis is rooted in the peddling of subprime, predatory, and abusive home loans to communities of color. It’s a crisis that put Wall Street profits above the welfare of every day Americans and is the embodiment of continuing discrimination in housing, lending and insurance markets. Our federal government had a duty to protect communities of color and middle class Americans from unfair practices, but instead allowed complicity and regulatory inertia to rule. 

No one should be surprised that the Pew Research Center released a report in July showing that the median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households. From 2005 to 2009, overall wealth for whites dropped 16 percent to $134,992, 66 percent for Latinos to $6,325 and 53 percent for blacks to $5,677. Striking disparities existed before the crisis, but plummeting home values were the principal cause of the erosion in household wealth, the report stated.

An argument that’s often heard is that communities of color in time will catch up with whites on various economic indicators, including housing. Dr. King warned about the myth of time only weeks before his death. He told his audience in Grosse Pointe, Mich.,   “somewhere we must come to see that human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability, it comes through the tireless efforts and the persistent work of dedicated individuals who are willing to be co-workers with God and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the primitive forces of social stagnation.  And so we must always help time and realize that the time is always right to do right.”

So let’s begin to do what’s right. Let’s start with committing to a broad and affirmative vision for fair housing. This vision calls for the availability of safe credit options for all people and all neighborhoods and leaves no room for redlining or restricting credit choices of people of color. It demands that affordable, pro-integrative rental opportunities be available in communities that have many resources but few people of color. It also does not accept America’s demographic status quo.

It means the federal government must take a substantial leadership role to enforce civil rights law. A major move in the right director is Congress passing the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010 to create the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB). The CFPB includes the crucial Office of Fair Lending and Equal Opportunity and is the new ‘cop on the beat’ to protect all consumers from predatory, abusive and discriminatory loans and credit practices. 

An affirmative vision for fair housing will also require the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to play an even more aggressive role in tackling systematic housing discrimination. HUD must continue to evaluate and where appropriate, change its rental assistance programs to allow recipients of housing assistance programs to make integrative housing choices. HUD should establish through fair housing regulations a clear set of responsibilities that municipalities must follow when accepting HUD money. The fair housing regulations should include: explicitly promoting racial integration, eliminating housing discrimination of all types and using predictable and well-applied enforcement mechanisms to punish municipalities for non-compliance.

Finally, for our political leaders must protect our most vulnerable citizens in this age of manufactured debt crises and demands for deficit reductions. Proposals designed to raise revenue or cut spending should not require low-income households, families with children, people with disabilities or households of color to shoulder the burden of national sacrifice.  Nor should programs that promote the work of fair housing be placed on the chopping block of political expediency. Their work is crucial for providing even a modest check on bias and discrimination. Last year, private fair housing organizations investigated 65 percent of the 28,851 fair housing complaints logged, almost twice as many as all federal, state, and local government agencies combined.

Forty years ago enactment of the Fair Housing Act provided this nation with a well-crafted tool against inequity and discrimination. But as we celebrate King and his work in fair housing, we must remember that our tools are effective only when wielded with skill and determination. Sadly, that’s not been the case with fair housing enforcement in America. We must step up to the plate and seize the many opportunities to advance Fair Housing law and make real change for all Americans. Join the National Fair Housing Alliance in this endeavor so we can provide a lasting tribute to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.