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Celebrating the Fair Housing Act

Homeownership was supposed to be this great equalizer. Still, too many of us are being left behind.

The Fair Housing Act (FHA) was passed on April 11, 1968. It prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin, sex, and as amended disability and family status. President Lyndon Johnson signed it as a follow-up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was a long and difficult journey to enact. Only after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did the president garner enough support for its passage.

Even over 50 years later it’s still hard to sue banks due to the difficulty of enforcing the sanctions on lending. White private actors could test a landlord’s willingness to rent to a black applicant versus a white applicant. It’s much harder to identify discrimination in mortgage origination. Housing discrimination remains a barrier to equal access to housing for too many individuals and families. Landlords may, for example, discriminate against rental applicants based on race or national origin. Or, tenants who experience a disability are often denied a reasonable accommodation that would allow them equal access to housing. African Americans and Latinos continue to be denied mortgages at a higher rate than whites in 61 metro areas.

Some people feel like the Fair Housing Act failed because it should have been written with stronger enforcement mechanisms, but the larger reason it failed to deliver integrated living patterns is that it was undercut by the laws, regulations, institutions, and subsidies that govern and shape the production of housing. I have had this same feeling about the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) that it doesn’t go far enough. There are too many ways companies or even our very own government get away with structures not being fully accessible.

Homeownership was supposed to be this great equalizer. Still, too many of us are being left behind. Even after a person buys a house the appraisal process can be racially motivated to give them a lower amount. A home appraisal is a process through which a licensed appraiser determines the fair market value of a property. I read an article in NPR from last year about a black couple who were shocked when a white appraiser valued their home in Marin City, California at $995,000 far lower than a previous assessment. They scheduled a do-over with a white friend posing as the owner. The couple removed their family photos, and their friend brought over a family photo so there was no trace of them in their own home, a term often referred to as whitewashing. That appraisal came in at $1,482,500.

Laws like the FHA are needed and have their place we just all wish they were better and hopefully, we will get to a world where laws like these will not be needed.

Learn more about the Fair Housing Act from HUD.

Learn more on the housing justice movement.