This April, celebrate equal access to housing for all

This is a guest post by Kate Agnelli. Kate is a Coordinator of Systemic Investigations and Enforcement at Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME).  She earned her M.S.W. from Virginia Commonwealth University and is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill.  Her background includes work in corrections and in the Virginia legislature, as well as with homeless youth in the Raleigh/Durham area.

WANTED: Tenants for spacious 3-bedroom house, $1125 per month plus one month’s rent for security deposit.  Large backyard with fence, close to shopping, some utilities included.  Extra $250 security deposit for couples with children.  Home is in a white neighborhood.  Call for more information.

It can be easy to forget that just over 40 years ago, placing an ad like the one above would have been perfectly legal.  It also would have been lawful to charge a higher security deposit to tenants with children—or simply to turn down an application because prospective tenants were not white.

On April 11, 1968, as a follow-up to the sweeping education and voting reforms made by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1968.  This month we celebrate Title VIII of this act, known as the Fair Housing Act.  The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, color, national origin, and religion.

It was later amended to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender (sex), disability (handicap), or familial status and to include design and construction standards for multi-family housing units built for first occupancy after March 13, 1991.  In addition to the classes listed above, Virginia’s Fair Housing Law prohibits discrimination based on elderliness, defined as being fifty-five years or older.  Both the federal Fair Housing Act and its equivalent in Virginia prohibit the use of discriminatory language in advertisements, like the one at the beginning of this post.

Enactment of fair housing protections had a tremendous impact across the nation.  Fair housing laws benefit everyone because they help us create inclusive communities where basic needs are being met.  Think about it: where you live affects every aspect of your life.  Do your children attend an excellent public school?  Do you have a variety of affordable grocery stores near your home that offer fresh, nutritious foods?  Are you able to take evening walks without fearing for your personal safety?  Access to services, healthy food, and a peaceful living environment are all functions of where you live.  Further, design and construction standards that create physically accessible living spaces don’t just benefit persons with disabilities—isn’t it easier for everyone to open a door with a lever handle than it is to turn a doorknob when you’re carrying groceries or laundry?

This April, we remember that the road to the enactment of the Fair Housing Act was a long and difficult one.  Congress had considered fair housing laws several times before 1968, and although fair housing was a cornerstone of the social justice platform pushed by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it had not gained a majority of votes in Congress.  The Act was pushed through Congress and signed into law shortly after Dr. King’s assassination as a tribute to his unfinished work.  Lest anyone assume that our society has passed a point where such laws are necessary, it is worth noting that Housing Opportunities Made Equal of Virginia, Inc. (HOME) received and/or documented 372 allegations of housing discrimination in 2010.  We are reminded that ensuring equal access to housing for all people has yet to be completed.

To learn more about fair housing laws, visit HOME’s fair housing page at: www.phonehome.org/fairhousing

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