Many Americans undoubtedly recognize Norman Rockwell’s 1967 painting, “New Kids in the Neighborhood.” It shows three white and two black children checking each other out as movers unload the black family’s possessions into their new suburban home. The kids’ faces reflect curiosity, along with a sense of optimism about the future of race relations. Yet lurking behind the drapes of the house next door is the concerned face of a man who does not appear to appreciate the changes taking place in his suburban neighborhood. But change was indeed coming.
A year later on April 11 — after Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated — President Lyndon Johnson signed the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 into law, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin and religion.
Over the past 50 years, hundreds of thousands of complaints and lawsuits have been filed to enforce the Fair Housing Act. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Department of Justice and private plaintiffs have used the Fair Housing Act to nullify restrictive covenants based on race and religion, confront discriminatory refusals by lenders and insurers, challenge racial steering by real estate professionals, put an end to predatory lending practices, address the discriminatory neglect of foreclosed properties in communities of color and more. After being broadened in the 1970s and 1980s — to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, family status and disability — the law has been invoked to protect the housing rights of women who have been subjected to sexual harassment and domestic violence, to challenge “adults only” housing restrictions, and to ensure the production of millions of units of accessible housing for people with disabilities.
For the past 30 years, civil rights groups such as the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA), the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and many others have had a leading role in fair housing enforcement. For instance, CNY Fair Housing and six women filed a lawsuit in Oswego, N.Y., alleging that that their landlord made unwanted sexual advances and pressured them for sexual favors in exchange for signing a lease or reducing the rent or security deposit. NFHA and 19 of its members sued Deutsche Bank, alleging it had failed to maintain its foreclosed bank-owned homes in middle- and working-class African American and Latino neighborhoods in 30 metropolitan areas while it consistently maintained similar homes in white neighborhoods. And last month, NFHA and three member organizations filed a lawsuit against Facebook, alleging its advertising platform enables landlords and real estate brokers to exclude families with children, women and other protected classes of people from receiving housing ads.
Five decades after King fought for “open housing,” segregation continues to take a financial toll on communities of color at all income levels. It leads to disinvestment and fewer tax dollars to develop and maintain healthy neighborhoods. It spawns a dual credit market and practices that result in blight and deterioration. Segregation makes it easier for predatory lenders to target communities of color. It perpetuates racial and ethnic stereotypes and compromises the opportunity to live in a neighborhood of one’s choice.
By combating discrimination, the Fair Housing Act helps to strengthen families, communities, businesses and our overall economy. If enforced, the law amounts to a promise that every community can be a place of opportunity. We are fast approaching the time when the United States will be a “majority minority” nation, and where racial, ethnic, class and cultural harmony will be more important than ever in preserving the country’s vitality. If discrimination and segregation are the poisons that prevent diverse, thriving and inclusive neighborhoods in which the majority of Americans say they want to live, fair housing is the antidote.
HUD recently announced it is suspending, for as much as seven years, city and county obligations to address segregation. In addition, the very agency charged with ensuring equal access to housing has proposed striking from its mission statement the powerful words “build inclusive and sustainable communities free from discrimination” in favor of weaker language. Is that HUD’s way of honoring the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act? We cannot afford the backward steps proposed by the current administration.
As our country becomes more diverse, vigorous enforcement of the Fair Housing Act and a greater embrace of its values and promises is even more critical in ensuring that every community is a place of opportunity where all families have access to quality schools, healthy food, meaningful jobs, quality credit and other opportunities that frame and affect our lives.
Wade Henderson (Henderson@civilrights.org) is former president and CEO of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and Gregory D. Squires (firstname.lastname@example.org) is professor of sociology and public policy and public administration at George Washington University and editor of “The Fight for Fair Housing: Causes, Consequences and Future Implications of the 1968 Federal Fair Housing Act.”