Government Remains the Biggest Obstacle to Fair Housing

Steve Yeater/AP Images for AIDS Healthcare Foundation

Marchers walk to the California State Capitol to protest the high cost of rental housing

The National Fair Housing Alliance recently issued its annual Fair Housing Trends Report. The study found that the number of housing discrimination complaints continues to increase. But beyond this troubling pattern in increased complaints is an even more startling development: Private, nonprofit fair-housing organizations—not federal, state, or local agencies—handled most of those complaints.

Meanwhile, HUD officials announced in January that they were suspending the implementation of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule, extending the deadline up to seven years for cities and counties to submit “Assessments of Fair Housing” to HUD and to comply with obligations to address housing discrimination and segregation. That is unlawful, which is why Tuesday, the National Fair Housing Alliance, Texas Appleseed, and Texas Low Income Housing Information Service asked a federal court in Washington, D.C., to order HUD to reinstate the federal requirement that local and state governments work to eliminate housing discrimination and address segregated housing patterns as a condition of receiving HUD funding.

The biggest obstacle to a person or family’s right to housing, it turns out, is still the federal government’s failure to vigorously enforce existing laws. The Fair Housing Trends Report noted that of the 28,843 complaints reported nationwide in 2017 (600 more than the previous year—a 2 percent increase over 2016 and the fourth straight year of increases), independent fair-housing groups stepped up to address the vast majority—more than 70 percent—of the complaints.

Even though the total number of complaints nationwide continues to grow, HUD and state and local Fair Housing Assistance Program (FHAP) agencies processed fewer complaints in 2017 than in 2016, when those agencies handled 8,401 cases. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)—which Congress has charged with ensuring effective enforcement of the Fair Housing Act—processed just 1,311 complaints last year, less than 5 percent of the total; (FHAP) agencies processed 6,896 complaints; and the Department of Justice brought 41 cases. 

The lion’s share of complaints, 57 percent, dealt with discrimination issues against people with disabilities. Complaints about racial discrimination comprised the second-largest category at 19 percent of all complaints. Familial status comprised 9 percent of complaints; national origin, 7 percent; sex/gender, 7 percent; color, 1.4 percent; religion, 1.3 percent; and other, 8 percent.

Fair-housing advocates remain concerned that racial and other types of harassment are under-reported. The Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James and his family experienced harassment when vandals painted racial epithets on the gate of their Los Angeles home. However, the high-profile incident was never reported as a fair-housing complaint, perhaps because the James family did not recognize that this act of hate was a violation of the Fair Housing Act. 

Passed 50 years ago to eliminate housing discrimination and promote residential integration, the effectiveness of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 has been stymied by entrenched policies and practices in cities and towns across the country that perpetuate discrimination and segregation. Moreover, ineffective enforcement by HUD and the Department of Justice combined with inadequate allocation of resources to public and private fair-housing programs exacerbates these issues. Social media also presents new barriers: Facebook’s advertising platform has allowed users to discriminate against specific groups of people looking for housing. Rampant gentrification and even rebuilding after disasters have also contributed to the uptick in housing discrimination complaints. 

The linchpin of the Fair Housing Act has always been enforcement, particularly by the federal government. “The law is meaningless unless you’re able to enforce that law. It starts at the top,” said Massachusetts Democratic Senator Edward Brooke, a co-author of the legislation. “The president of the U.S., the attorney general of the U.S., and the secretary of HUD have a constitutional obligation to enforce fair housing law.”

But the Trump administration undermines rather than supports the law reversing five decades of bipartisan progress—and not just at HUD. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is under siege by its own acting director, Mick Mulvaney. He stripped the Office of Fair Lending of its enforcement powers, and more generally has taken a lax approach to compliance, pulled back on effective regulations, and signaled that instead of protecting consumers, the bureau’s goal would be to protect businesses. The Trump Treasury Department issued a report recommending the repeal of a fair lending provision contained in the Dodd-Frank Act and suggesting that the CFPB’s efforts to use disparate impact to address discrimination in the auto lending sector be limited. A separate Treasury report recommends HUD change decades-long precedent by not applying key provisions of the Fair Housing Act to the insurance industry. 

Despite these recent setbacks, we must work to tear down the institutionalized barriers that prevent too many families in this country from fair access to housing: Every community must be a place of opportunity for all residents and every neighborhood must be open to all people, regardless of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, or family status. Congress must also commit adequate funds to support those public and private agencies that enforce the law. The United States cannot thrive as long as the country is plagued by discrimination, segregation, and severe and rapidly increasing economic inequality. The federal government, particularly HUD, DOJ, and federal regulators, must vigorously enforce our nation’s fair-housing laws, rules, and guidances.

Despite continued challenges, fair housing will become a reality because Americans are a tenacious people. Since 1968, community leaders, mayors, governors, and members of Congress have worked across the political divide to ensure that everyone has access to adequate and fair housing. Advocates for fair housing know today—even more clearly than they did in 1968—that where you live matters. Fully implementing fair housing laws improves a child’s chances of growing up in a stable community, graduating from high school, attending college, getting and keeping good jobs, increasing lifetime earnings, and passing on wealth to future generations.  

How do we ensure that future generations of all backgrounds live in neighborhoods rich with opportunity? Fair housing. A real commitment to fair housing can ultimately dismantle the housing discrimination and segregation that produced these inequities in the first place. Fifty years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, we have yet to fully utilize the power and potential of this landmark piece of legislation. But as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us, “The time is always right to do what is right.”

This article has been updated.


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