30 years later, Fair Housing Act bridging the divide


IT HAS BEEN a little more than 30 years since passage of the Fair Housing Act, part of the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1968, which was approved by Congress under pressure from President Lyndon Johnson. It prohibited discrimination in the sale or rental of housing, except owner-occupied, single-family housing with four or fewer occupants, sold or rented without the aid of a broker or an agent.

The results have been mixed. Progress has certainly been made in middle- and upper-class suburban homeownership and in apartment housing. The city of Columbia, established by James Rouse even before the housing law's enactment, is now about 25 percent nonwhite.

A mixed report

But all the news is not good. In Maryland, Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., a fair housing group, last year received 247 reports of discrimination in housing that merited investigation. Seventy-one complaints were referred to the Department of Housing and Urban Development and various local agencies. BNI resolved 112 cases through negotiation in 1997 and completed 106 tests. In each test, a minority couple, which had been rejected, was followed by a white couple, with the same income and in the same social stratum, which was accepted.

Thirty-seven of the cases contained significant evidence of discrimination. The situation last year in Washington was equally discouraging. There, 36 percent of the visits to a real estate office by black and Hispanic homebuyers involved some form of discrimination, the Fair Housing Council reported. In every case, white testers received more courteous and prompt service from the same office. Minority applicants were told they had to qualify for a mortgage before seeing homes, while there was no such requirement for whites.

In Baltimore, many areas remain extremely segregated, for example: Gay Street/Penn Central, 98.5 percent black; Gwynns Falls/Clifton, 99.0 percent black; Beverly Hills/Harford Road, 98.7 percent white, Cross Country/Clarks Lane, 95.2 percent white; Forest Park/Garrison Avenue, 98.5 percent black; Eastern Avenue, 99.4 percent white; and Elwood Park/Highland/Kenwood, 96.1 percent white.

In a recent study in Washington, about one-third of the minorities interviewed said that they would prefer to live in a racially diversified neighborhood rather than their present segregated community (the reality may be an even smaller number because of the tendency of interviewees to express what they think the interviewer wants to hear).

However, most are simply following the natural desire to live with their own kind. The reason lies in the nature of all living creatures: to find comfort and security in the group identified with their mothers; to have a wider choice for procreation and rearing of offspring and to eat rather than be eaten by other species.

Some groupings do complement each other: the long-necked ostrich with keen eyesight can spot danger; the zebra with a strong olfactory sense can sniff it coming. Thus, they warn of approaching peril, live together and protect each other. The ostrich does not lose a single feather, nor the zebra a single stripe.

Also, people huddle because in previous times, the only source of help for immigrant families was their relatives and their ethnic/religious communities.

Today, however, the main provider of last resort is federal, state and local government, which gives more humanitarian aid than private foundations and charities combined. The principal benefactor is not Uncle John, but Uncle Sam.

When my wife and I were house-hunting 50 years ago, we found a partially built home in Northwest Baltimore that had the potential to meet our requirements. The builder had intended it as a gift for his newlywed daughter and son-in-law, but their marriage dissolved. We bought it immediately. All that we

checked were the neighborhood schools and the proximity to tTC our Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. We did not investigate or care about the religious or racial composition of the neighborhood, which we later found to be all white and Christian.

While we were supervising the completion of construction, neighbors dropped in with greetings, offers of aid and suggestions and invitations to their homes for dinner. Though we had not been aware of it, we had "busted the block"; nevertheless, we were welcomed.

We became close friends with one family in particular. Their children and our son played together. We watched TV in each other's homes. We took trips together. They accompanied us to events at our temple, and we attended affairs at their church.

At that time, our temple had not yet organized a Cub Scout pack, so our son joined the Elderslie Methodist Church Cub Scout Pack 59, which honored me by making me its program chairman and camp-out parent.

From exchanging our boyhood recollections -- my neighbor's of growing up poor on a small truck farm and mine of the crowded streets and alleys of a polyglot, working-class neighborhood in East Baltimore -- we came to understand and empathize with the problems of poverty in this wealthy nation.

We exchanged Christmas-Hanukkah gifts. We explained our holidays to them, and they did the same for us. We became, in effect, one extended family.

Forty-two years later, after our son married, and my wife and I moved to a retirement community, we sold the home to a black family which, we are told, has been embraced by the neighbors as we were long ago.

Bringing down the walls

In this age, when so many natural handicaps have been overcome, when police, fire protection, national defense and humanitarian needs are mostly the responsibility of government, it may be hoped that the day will come when the ancient walls come tumbling down and people will accept and benefit from living together in racially diversified communities, instead of huddling for protection with only their own kind.

Then, indeed, Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream of judging people, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character, can be realized. Then children of all races can learn from each other that loving one's neighbor is more fun than hating and fearing those whom their ancestors hated and feared, and that all people are born equal with inalienable rights. One of these is the privilege and opportunity of living with good neighbors of every race and religion, who can enrich our brief stay on this lonely planet.

Jack L. Levin writes from Pikesville.

Pub Date: 5/28/98

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