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The Fair Housing Act — A Complete Failure

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Nikole Hannah-Jones. Credit: Lars Klove.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson saw his 1966 bill to ban housing discrimination die in Congress, he considered it one of his most devastating political defeats. The relentless negotiator had managed to force through the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction – banning discrimination in schools, at the polls, in employment, on buses and trains, and in public accommodations. But the area of housing was too noxious. Johnson could not twist enough arms to get it passed — Northern congressman opposed it as viscerally as Southern ones.

Johnson understood that as long as black Americans were largely confined away from white residents in areas with high-poverty, high-crime and poor schools, they would remain isolated from the opportunities the civil rights movement sought to open up. But it took the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. just five years after the March on Washington — and the more than 125 riots that followed — to finally force through the landmark 1968 Fair Housing Act.

Still, the only way to get what was known as the first Northern civil rights bill passed was to strip it of all its enforcement powers. And just a few months later, the nation elected Richard Nixon, a man who’d risen to the White House on a Southern Strategy that promised to halt all progress on integration in schools and housing.

The nation’s historical antipathy to open housing is critical because it explains why the federal government – under administrations both Republican and Democrat — has largely refused to enforce the Fair Housing Act in the 45 years since the law was passed. As a result, while the nation prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the demands for open housing and the obliteration of the ghetto have gone largely unmet.

Of course, housing lines are not so rigidly drawn in 2013. Many black Americans now enjoy integrated and prosperous neighborhoods – but they are in the minority. Far too many black Americans continue to live neighborhoods of concentrated poverty with failing schools and few jobs. Despite common belief, income alone does not account for this. Due to past policies that prevented many black Americans from growing wealth through homeownership, and because of rampant housing discrimination that continues unabated today, middle class black Americans are still heavily concentrated in segregated, poor neighborhoods. In fact, Census figures show that affluent black Americans live in poorer neighborhoods than working-class white Americans.

The least progress has been made in the North, which is home to the most starkly segregated black communities in the country. In cities like New York, Chicago, Milwaukee and Newark, black Americans live in almost complete isolation where nearly 90 percent of them would have to move in order to live in neighborhoods evenly integrated with white residents.

That’s why some scholars have said that of all civil rights laws passed after the historic March on Washington, the Fair Housing Act is the one that has been a complete failure.

Nikole Hannah-Jones is a reporter for ProPublica covering civil rights with a focus on segregation and discrimination in housing and schools. Her 2012 coverage of federal failures to enforce the landmark 1968 Fair Housing Act won several awards, including Columbia University’s Tobenkin Award for distinguished coverage of racial or religious discrimination.

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  • Steve Dane

    The Fair Housing Act has two distinct purposes – 1) Eliminating discriminatory
    housing practices; and 2) Eliminating residential housing segregation. Although
    we are still a long way from achieving the Fair Housing Act’s goal of
    completely eliminating segregation, I must disagree with your premise that the
    Act is a “complete failure.” I’ve been enforcing the Act as a lawyer in the
    private sector for my entire career (over 30 years), and can affirm that the
    Act has achieved powerful, far reaching results throughout this nation. It is one of the strongest civil rights acts in the nation, and its enforcement provisions have been used effectively. As a result of litigation brought under the Act by private fair housing agencies, and sometimes private individuals, levels of residential segregation in many communities has lessened, the lending industry has improved the way it underwrites mortgages, the homeowners insurance industry has eliminated eligibility guidelines with racially discriminatory effects, and tens of thousands of rental units have been made fully accessible to people with disabilities. This list only scratches the surface of what positive
    systemic changes have resulted from Fair Housing Act enforcement. The federal
    government’s enforcement efforts have been inconsistent, depending on the party
    in power, but the Act itself is achieving results. It could be more
    effectively used to achieve even greater results if Congress would provide
    funding for more effective education and outreach initiatives, greater
    research and private systemic enforcement efforts.

  • Rob Breymaier

    It’s correct to say that private enforcement has done a lot to
    improve the lives and defend the rights of individuals that have faced
    discrimination in housing. At the same time, the federal government has
    been lacking in its duty to affirmatively further fair housing by
    promoting integration.

    Meanwhile, a small number of local communities across the country have taken integration seriously. I happen to live in what is, probably the best known of those communities, Oak Park. And, I have the good fortune to run an organization that is intentionally promoting racial integration every single day.

    I would hope that in addition to calling attention to the failures of the
    past 45 years, we could also point out the successes and hopefully
    inspire others to do the same.

    It would be a good time to shed light on efforts like ours in Oak Park. HUD is looking to update its regulations on affirmatively furthering fair housing.
    This administration has been more active on integration issues than
    most. Highlighting models of successful, sustained integration during
    this brief window could spur new programs at the local level and better
    policies at the federal level.

  • John Bailo

    Maybe you Rip Van Winkles need to get out of the symposium once in a blue moon.

    All across America, it’s been the Social Engineers who have been using land theft under the name of density to steal the single family home from Americans and herd us like cattle into 250 sq. ft. apodments under the name of urban density.

    I don’t know what you think of as “Fair” in this new world of reduced expectations. Is it a two bedroom by a bus line? A McMansion or a Habitrail cubbyhole with a shared bathroom on a floor with some college students and intravenous drug users?

  • James Monroe Holland jr

    AM I OUT TO LUNCH? I have been under the impression that Equal Opportunity was a component of Fair Housing…Please… someone lead me in the right direction if I’m wrong.

  • James Holland

    What about Section 3 of the Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO)Act of 1968 as amended?

  • darryl

    Due to past policies that prevented many black Americans from growing wealth through homeownership, and because of rampant housing discrimination that continues unabated today, middle class black Americans are still heavily concentrated in segregated, poor neighborhoods.
    Blacks have not helped themselves. 70% of black children raised by one parent, reliance on government, Race baiting organizations-rainbow push coalition, NAACP (aren’t helping address problems in black communities).
    Now our presidents stupidity on economics is raising unemployment 12% blacks , & 40 % + for black teens is devastating black communities.
    Blaming black fortunes on Housing Discrimination? wow, stances like this on why blacks aren’t advancing like other races is a primary reason nothing has changed..