Housing Discrimination Still A Barrier to Wealth

In “The Promise of the Fair Housing Act and the Role of Fair Housing Organizations,” Jorge Andres Soto and Deidre Swesnik discuss the history and continued need for reform of the Fair Housing Act and its enforcement.  Beginning with its roots in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s, Soto and Swesnik explain the importance of fair housing access as a cornerstone in civil rights.

Passed in 1968, the Fair Housing Act was designed to combat housing discrimination and segregation and promote racial integration nationwide.  It prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, and national origin in areas including real estate sales, rentals, loans, insurance, and all related services.  Prior to its passage, mortgage bankers, restrictive covenants in housing developments, and public housing authorities all contributed to the deep-set problem of institutionalized racial discrimination in the housing market.  The Act created a new mechanism to address housing discrimination, allowing victims of housing discrimination to submit complaints to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

The Fair Housing Act has been amended several times since 1968 to address new forms of housing discrimination and expand the enforcement powers of HUD and its state agencies.  The classes protected by the Act have been expanded to cover housing discrimination based on sex, disability, and familial status.  In 1988, the definition of prohibited activities has also been expanded to include less direct methods of discrimination including coercion, interference, and intimidation.  Most significantly, the 1988 amendments included the creation of more direct methods of enforcement for HUD and its agencies.

Soto and Swesnik argue that despite all of these reforms, the Fair Housing Act still falls short.  Shockingly, today less than 1% of the actual incidents of housing discrimination are investigated.  Of those reported, the majority are handled by private non-profit fair housing organizations rather than HUD or other government agencies.  Private non-profit fair housing organizations investigate 66% of the reported cases of housing discrimination. HOME is a good example of one of these non-profit fair housing organizations. Founded in 1971, HOME has been ensuring equal access to housing for all Virginians for decades. Discrimination still occurs in 21st century Virginia and HOME continues to help Virginians access neighborhoods of their choice.

In spite of all the steps the government and private organizations have taken, today housing discrimination is alive and well.  Predatory lenders target racial minorities to charge higher interest rates for loans, usually trapping the borrowers in an endless cycle of debt.  Soto and Swesnik revealed that African American and Latino families take out more than three times as many predatory loans as their white neighbors.    Communities of color have also suffered disproportionate loss of homes and wealth in the foreclosure crisis.  Discriminatory lending and foreclosure practices have emptied out entire once- vibrant African American communities.  Today, the property values in predominantly white communities consistently exceed those in their African American counterparts.

Soto and Swesnik even cite instances of institutionalized housing discrimination perpetuated by government agencies.  For example, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, African American families received less federal assistance for the value of their homes than their white neighbors.

The high number instances of private and institutionalized housing discrimination coupled with a low number of instances reported or investigated perpetuates the very problem the Fair Housing Act sought to end.  Segregation and discrimination based on race and other factors might be illegal, but the law does not mean much if there is no way to enforce it.

Soto and Swesnik call for continued reform to adjust to a growing need for fair housing.  First of all, they say federal housing protections should be expanded to prohibit discrimination based on factors including sexual orientation, marital status, and source of income.  The Fair Housing Act should also be amended to allow private actions for governmental failure to actively combat housing segregation and discrimination.

HUD should embrace its mission to affirmatively further fair housing by aggressively enforcing the federal legislation that requires active steps to end segregation.  HUD must continue to conduct testing and research to pinpoint caused of continued de facto segregation.  HUD must also provide more funding through grants to the private non-profit fair housing organizations that handle the bulk of investigations now.

It is clear that housing discrimination and segregation of communities is a continuing problem in the United States.  Through continued reform of the Fair Housing Act, more research to address the problem at its root, and a concerted effort by HUD, government agencies, and private fair housing organizations, we can work to end housing discrimination.

This is a guest post by Amy Weiss. Amy is originally from Richmond, Virginia and is a third year law student at the University of Richmond.  She graduated from the College of William and Mary in 2007 where she studied history and anthropology. 


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