The basic premise of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 is this: Everyone should have the right to choose where they want to live according to their means, without being subjected to discrimination based on their race, religion, gender or national origin. You shouldn’t be denied the right to move into a neighborhood or get a loan simply because of something so arbitrary.
It sounds simple enough, but issues regarding race have never been very simple in America.
Why Was There Such a Struggle for Fair Housing?
Following the Civil War, so-called “Jim Crow” laws and “Black Codes” were designed to enforce divisions between African Americans and whites. Laws in some areas separated everything from movie theaters and restaurants to drinking fountains and cemeteries.
Even when Jim Crow-era laws gave way and segregation was officially deemed unconstitutional in the 1940s and 1950s, largely unspoken policies in many areas continued to create “separate but unequal” housing that kept African Americans and others from integrating and moving into “whites-only” neighborhoods. Housing with white-only covenants were not only common but encouraged.
Even lauded government programs like the New Deal, which helped millions of Americans recover from the Great Depression, weren’t immune from institutional racial divides. The Federal Home Loan Bank Board and the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) program instituted the practice known as “red-lining,” or branding minority or racially mixed neighborhoods as “poor risks” for its low-interest loans, regardless of an individual’s unique creditworthiness.
The combination created a Catch-22 for African Americans who wanted to own their own homes. They couldn’t obtain housing loans in the inner city because the areas were red-lined, or designated as high-risk. They couldn’t move into the suburbs because restrictive covenants kept them out. Homeownership — and the path to stability and wealth it provided — was largely out of reach for African Americans, which perpetuated the idea that largely black neighborhoods were inherently unstable and financially risky.
Essentially, even when the law no longer codified or protected it, racial segregation remained the de facto rule of the land. Your race affected where you could rent an apartment, buy a home, obtain a mortgage, go to school and just about everything else. Challenges to the status quo were met with anger, fear, resistance, threats and violence.
When Did Fair Housing Get Its Start?
The seeds of change were laid in the Cold War, but it took the Vietnam War for them to sprout.
America’s racial divide had created two different Americas, one largely black, poor and urban and the other mostly white, affluent and suburban. This made it difficult to keep the country united against what the government now saw as a common enemy: communism and the U.S.S.R.
By the late 1950s and early 1960s, racial tensions in America were high, and riots broke out over the way that African Americans in this country were treated. Ultimately, President Johnson established the Kerner Commission to get to the heart of the racial divide, and the report issued in 1968 was blunt: Institutionalized segregation was tearing the nation into two pieces. One half of America was largely white and affluent, the other poor and black — and institutionalized segregation was responsible.
Just weeks later, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who had long been a compelling voice against racism and segregation in all its forms, was assassinated. In the aftermath of Dr. King’s death, more riots broke out, giving President Lyndon Johnson the political sway to push the Fair Housing Act — which had long been stalled in Congress — into law, making it a lasting tribute to King’s legacy.
How Does the Fair Housing Act Work?
Homeownership is one of the most valuable opportunities you can have to build wealth — but that opportunity is dependent on access and affordability. African Americans and other people of color have to have equal access to both housing and affordable financing in order to take part in the same American dream that homeownership affords whites.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), creates the policies that ensure equal housing under the Fair Housing Act. The Fair Housing Act itself has been amended and expanded over time, broadening the scope of its protections, but its essential goal still remains the same as it always was: It’s designed to both end housing discrimination and reverse segregation.
If you’re looking for a new home, most of your interactions with others will be governed under the Fair Housing Act. Real estate agents, landlords, banks, sellers and property managers alike are all bound to obey Fair Housing Act regulations — and many may be subject to local and state ordinances that broaden their legal responsibilities even further.
When you see the “Equal Housing Opportunity” logo (the outline of a house with an equal sign inside) on a company’s website or door, it’s a visible reminder to customers and clients that housing discrimination is unacceptable and an affirmation that the REALTOR®, bank or other business is committed to housing equality.
While recent events have highlighted the fact that America still struggles with racial divides and racial tensions, it’s important to look back and remember that progress has been made. What took root back in the 1940s and blossomed in the 1960s is still growing and evolving today. The story is far from over.