Fair housing advocates gathered Thursday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon Johnson signing the 1968 Fair Housing Act, a landmark piece of legislation that outlawed housing discrimination and residential segregation in the United States.
But instead of celebrating the considerable achievements produced during the half-century since the law’s enactment, speakers and panelists appearing onstage at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. issued a call to action for increased activism to protect the law and expand its enforcement provisions.
“The Fair Housing Act is as necessary today as it was 50 years ago,” said Shanna Smith, president of the National Fair Housing Alliance, an advocacy organization that hosted the gathering to kickoff a monthly series of activities this year aimed at drawing attention to fair housing issues.
The timing for their message couldn’t be more perfect. Fair housing advocates fret that in this golden anniversary, federal officials are actively undermining the law and eradicating its hard-fought protections. They point with anger to the Trump administration — and Trump’s Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Ben Carson specifically — which has announced plans to roll back the federal government’s commitment toward protecting fair housing.
A bit of history is needed to understand the destructive attack Carson is waging on enforcement of fair housing laws.
In 1968, every neighborhood — and the houses or apartments in them — were color coded. By and large, white Americans could live where they wanted and increasingly they chose to move into new, expanding, and segregated suburbs. Most black Americans weren’t as fortunate; even with the money and desire to live in relative luxury, racial covenants, exclusionary banking practices, and local ordinances limited their housing options primarily to substandard dwellings in overcrowded inner cities.
But legal support for this version of American apartheid ended in 1968 — precisely seven days after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — with Congress passing and Johnson signing Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, better known as the Fair Housing Act.
At the signing, Johnson noted that the changed law was only a first step toward granting full citizenship rights to people who had been denied them for generations, stretching back to the founding of the nation. “At long last, fair housing for all is now a part of the American way of life,” he said. “We have come some of the way — not near all of it.”
The Fair Housing Act was successful in striking down laws that permitted discrimination; realtors, landlords, and homeowners can no longer legally make homeownership decisions based on race. According to University of Michigan demographer William Frey, America’s neighborhoods are less segregated than they were in 1970, shortly after the passage of the Fair Housing, albeit the pace of desegregation of communities is turtle-speed slow into the 21st century.
But that was a solution to half of the problem the law sought to address. Local communities still remained on the sidelines in taking an affirmative effort to desegregate neighborhoods, which was the other major provision of the law. Decades after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, the Obama administration intervened to compel local officials to do more to break down residential segregation.
In an effort to compel local communities to enforce all of the Fair Housing Act’s requirements, the Obama administration issued a regulation requiring communities that received federal housing assistance to study their residential housing patterns, identify instances of continued segregation and discrimination, and offer remediation plans to HUD. With the new rule, the Obama administration was allowing the federal government to enforce the ignored provision of the Fair Housing Act.
Last month, Carson said his department would push back the deadline to at least 2020 for local communities to comply with the Obama-era rule. Practically speaking, the delay is a retreat from demanding community leaders follow the law.
“It’s terrible news,” Gustavo Velasquez, who was the assistant secretary for fair housing and equal opportunity at HUD during the final three years of the Obama administration, told the New York Times. “I am concerned, though, that this is not actually the worst news.”
What Velasquez and other fair housing advocates fear is that Carson will completely unravel the rule, the first legitimate enforcement effort in the 50-year history of the Fair Housing Act. Indeed, before he was HUD secretary, Carson argued in a Washington Times essay that the Obama rule was “government-engineered attempts to legislate racial equality [that] create consequences that often make matters worse.”
Such misguided thinking — and policymaking — is the reason fair housing advocates have less of a reason to celebrate, Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League, said during the panel discussion at the NFHA event. “What the federal government is doing in terms of fair housing enforcement is what I call ‘misfeasance,'” he said to applause. “It’s a shame, their failure to enforce fair housing laws.”
But all is not lost. People who lived through the struggle to enact fair housing laws recall that 1968 was a difficult period in U.S. history. Civil rights advocates fought and prevailed against the odds to push the nation toward greater equality and fairness for all citizens. It can happen again.
Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) said as much to the group, putting a positive, progressive spin on contemporary efforts to preserve and protect fair housing. He noted that 50 years ago, the nation was rocked by horrific social upheaval, including the assassinations of King and Sen. Robert Kennedy (D-NY), as well as rioting in many major cities and the violent protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Yet, Kaine said, the Fair Housing Act was passed by a reluctant Congress and was signed into law with the enthusiastic support of President Johnson.
“There’s a lesson for us to remember,” Kaine said. “In times of tragedy and challenge, good things can happen. And that’s a lesson for us today in light of the tragedy and challenges we face, good things can still happen.”