Making the Fair Housing Act Work for Everyone

By Agatha So, Policy Analyst, Economic Policy Project, NCLR

Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives

Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives

A good home is the foundation for a better education for our children, enhanced employment opportunities, and a safe and stable place for families. We recently celebrated National Homeownership Month, and we are reminded of the ongoing role of the Fair Housing Act (FHA) in ensuring that American families have equal opportunity to find a place to call home.

Our President and CEO Janet Murguía shared remarks at this year’s National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) Conference, reaffirming the relevance of fair housing to NCLR’s mission of making the American Dream of homeownership accessible for Latino families. Since 1988, NCLR has been working with NFHA to ensure that the promise of the FHA continues to be a reality for all Americans.

The FHA has been a critical tool for the civil rights community to ensure that communities of color, in particular, are protected from race-neutral, and other forms of housing discrimination that would affect them disproportionately, as in the case of Texas v. Inclusive Communities Project.

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Your Housing Rights Are on the Line

By Nancy Wilberg Ricks, Senior Policy Strategist, NCLR

This year all eyes are on anti-discrimination laws that impact your housing rights, as the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) intends to release a much-needed and improved Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule. Congress has already tried to stymie that rule, while the Supreme Court will scrutinize a legal theory called “disparate impact” that has long helped families battle housing discrimination.

This alphabet soup of players and policies could have a big impact on where you live, how much you pay for housing, and whether or not you are denied a chance to move into a neighborhood that’s good for your kids.

Legislative Obstacles
HUD’s release of a new AFFH rule has been a point of debate for more than 40 years. Now that HUD aims to finalize the rule, Congress is working hard to ensure that it is impossible to enforce. This rule would help in multiple ways:

  • It ensures that all people—regardless of race, ethnicity, family status, or disability—have a range of choices on where to live.
  • It gives jurisdictions the tools to identify barriers to fair housing and devise their own solutions to the unique problems they face.
  • It will advance opportunity in America by shaping investments in housing, transportation, environment, health, education, infrastructure, and economic development—all essential pathways to prosperity.

Some members of Congress are doing their best to undo years of progress made in rooting out housing discrimination. In the House last week, Representative Garrett (R–N.J.) offered an amendment to an appropriations bill that would stop the Department of Justice from enforcing the disparate impact rule, Representative Gosar (R–Ariz.) created an amendment that would stop HUD from finalizing the rule altogether, and Representative Stivers (R–Ohio) deliberately offered an amendment after midnight—when few members were present to speak against it—to prohibit the use of funds for fair housing programs. These are egregious and unfounded interventions taken by Congress to impede consumer protections.

Rumblings in the Courts
Adding fuel to the fire, the Supreme Court will decide this month whether the legal theory of “disparate impact” should be modified. Under disparate impact, a housing or lending policy or practice can be ruled discriminatory if it has a disproportionate, adverse effect on a given racial or ethnic group, even if it is unintentional. Disparate impact has laid effective precedent for decades to battle redlining, exclusionary zoning, and racial steering.

Decision-makers must maintain the strength of disparate impact’s parameters. While blatant housing discrimination is rare, studies indicate that prejudice endures. Minority home-seekers are still shown fewer available housing units, raising the costs of search and constraining their choices. With a ruling later this month, the Supreme Court threatens to dilute its strength, which could compromise years of consumer wins.

Segregation endures. It is no coincidence that the Civil Rights Act, passed in 1964, led to the creation of the Fair Housing Act, on which decades of legal precedent now hang. Today’s political climate compromises these advances and has made leaders blind to the impact of housing injustice. Invalidating fair housing rights amounts to much bigger problems for communities and society as a whole. In the wake of racial and economic unrest, now is not the time to roll back civil rights.

The Work of the Fair Housing Act Is Not Yet Complete

HousingDiscrimination_blogpic_newHomeownership is a cornerstone of the American Dream and often a doorway to greater opportunity. The family that is able to buy or rent in a neighborhood with a thriving local economy is undoubtedly more likely to find the kinds of quality, well-paying jobs that will help them move up the economic ladder. Children who are able to attend good school systems have a greater chance of moving on to higher education and achieving their professional dreams. Choosing where to settle down is a decision with tremendous implications for a family’s future.

Unfortunately, not everybody is given a fair shot at living in the communities of their choice. The Fair Housing Act, signed into law more than 45 years ago to end discriminatory housing practices, has been an essential safeguard for Latino families who would otherwise have been denied equal access to housing. Yet housing discrimination persists at alarming rates—more than three million cases every year. NCLR research shows that even in communities with a longstanding Latino presence, such as San Antonio, housing discrimination is still an issue that Latinos face on a regular basis.

Having just gone through a housing crisis that wiped away generations of wealth from communities of color who were disproportionately targeted with predatory lending practices, it is clear the Fair Housing Act is needed now more than ever. However, a challenge in the Supreme Court could irrevocably alter this essential legislation for the worse. Today the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on a case that will determine whether the use of disparate impact within the Fair Housing Act can continue to protect against discriminatory housing policies.

Family in front of houseAs it stands, disparate impact prohibits housing policies that result in discrimination, regardless of intention. For example, when a community passes a local ordinance outlawing families larger than four people to sign a rental lease, the result is an unintentional limitation on rental options for large families—families who may be living with multiple generations under one roof or have relatives visiting from their home countries for extended periods of time. These types of policies, which enable racial exclusion to persist, are kept at bay by provisions of the Fair Housing Act.

If our nation is to live up to its highest principles of fairness, justice, and opportunity, then the Supreme Court cannot chip away at the critical protections offered under the Fair Housing Act. If we allow these discriminatory policies to persist, we will forever have a nation in which people who make the same incomes, have the same financial profiles, and have the same credit scores, will not achieve the same results—simply because housing service providers can employ separate but unequal systems that perpetuate discrimination. Discrimination, even if it is unintentional, must be eradicated in order to foster more diverse and inclusive communities that empower Americans to seek out opportunity and fulfill the American Dream.