With President Biden, the Country Might Finally See the Promise of the 1968 Fair Housing Act

Detail of Home Owners Loan Corporation Map ca 1935

Joe Biden picks up where Lyndon Johnson left off

In April 1968, in the wake of the murder of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the explosion in the streets of segregated Black neighborhoods in cities across the country, Congress enacted the Fair Housing Act, the third major Civil Rights Act of the civil rights movement. The bill, which had been promoted by President Lyndon Johnson, had been blocked by southern segregationist Democrats and conservative Republicans for over two years. But after increasing evidence that housing discrimination and segregation was at the root of recent urban civil unrest, congressional law makers in Washington relented and gave the bill a majority of their votes.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 aimed to improve housing conditions for Americans in two main ways. First, it outlawed housing discrimination against African Americans, including racially restrictive covenants, in rental contracts, and through sales in housing. Second, it aimed to racially integrate America’s metropolitan areas — or in fair housing parlance, “affirmatively further” fair housing — especially in suburban majority white communities.

While there is still meaningful evidence of racial discrimination in today’s real estate and rental markets, the second part of the Fair Housing Act has never really been implemented, leaving much of the country’s urban geographies as racially segregated as they were in 1968. Equally problematic are the racial economic disparities that still exist in American communities today that are a result of the very segregated housing patterns that the act aimed to address in 1968. Today’s white families on average own 10 times more wealth than Black families.

Earlier this year, Tony Dokoupil, a reporter for CBS News, began to learn of the great advantage that his white family received through government-supported housing policies and programs. After World War II, his grandfather received a government-backed mortgage to purchase a new home for his family in the growing suburbs of New Jersey. Grandpa Dokoupil was white, as where 99% of the other recipients of government-backed mortgages of suburban New Jersey homes. In fact, not only were Black families not eligible for the government support, they were also steered into redlined neighborhoods that were disproportionately impacted by environmental hazards and insufficient infrastructure, such as sewer systems and transportation access. So, while whites were building wealth through homeownership, Blacks were “left out of that process of household wealth accumulation.”

This was exactly the issue that the Fair Housing Act was to address. Yet, it was a strange twist of fate that the law was adopted just as President Lyndon Johnson — a strong supporter of civil rights who had long sought the federal fair housing law– was winding down his presidency. Instead, the responsibility to begin implementing the law was passed to Richard Nixon, who was at best a lukewarm supporter of equal rights for Blacks.

With only a few notable exceptions since then, local, state and federal governments have not meaningfully committed to fulfilling the Fair Housing Act’s provision to affirmatively further fair housing. Much of this is due to the unwillingness of elected officials to stand up to majority white suburban constituents to open their communities to the type of housing that is attainable by moderate- and low-income families that are more likely to be families of color. As an official in President Bill Clinton’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) put it, “People say integration has failed. It hasn’t failed because it’s never been tried.”

Until… now? Within his first 100 days, President Joe Biden is already making moves that could make his administration the most fair housing-friendly administration since Johnson left office in 1969.

First, Biden’s appointment of Congresswoman Marcia Fudge to serve as his administration’s HUD Secretary is a great first step. Not only do Fudge and Biden share a commitment to racial justice and equity in housing, but they also understand the power of an activist government. During the campaign, Biden declared housing “a right, not a privilege”, proposing to expand the Housing Choice Voucher programs to be an entitlement. In her Senate confirmation hearing, Fudge agreed, adding creating more opportunities for homeownership and arresting the pandemic eviction crisis to her priority list.

Additionally, Fudge’s HUD is already making initial steps to reinstate two critical rules to the enforcement of the Fair Housing Act that the previous Trump Administration cancelled. One reinstates the rule using the “disparate impact” legal standard that helps identify racially discriminatory impacts of policies and practices that use otherwise race-neutral language. It was a long-held legal standard until President Obama’s HUD codified it in 2013. The second rule would restore the 2015 “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” rule that was the Obama Administration’s effort to live up to the Fair Housing Act’s charge to encourage housing desegregation by requiring communities to identity, then remove, barriers to racial integration before receiving HUD funding. Civil rights attorneys say the two rules are critical to the enforcement of the 53-year old fair housing law.

But the real game changer for fair housing in America is included in Biden’s proposed American Jobs Plan, otherwise known as his infrastructure plan, which he unveiled at the end of March. The AJP — which is being turned into an actual bill by Congress — includes four meaningful planks that will invest $213 billion to produce, preserve, and retrofit over 2 million homes; expand homeownership opportunities for more families to buy a home and start building wealth; and invest in public housing. It also includes grants and tax credits to cities that change zoning laws to bolster more equitable access to affordable housing. This shows that the Biden Administration is actually putting money into programs that would make fair housing real for millions of Americans.

In April of 1968 when President Johnson was signing the newly-passed Fair Housing Act, he spoke of the long and troubled path it took to pass the bill, ending with “We have come some of the way, not near all of it. There is much yet to do.” Indeed. The fair housing baton has been passed to ten administrations since then, with limited progress. Let’s see how far President Biden can carry it from here.

Published Wednesday, April 14, 2021








Cara is a regional policy leader and the Director of The Fair Economy Project. Reach her at cara@thefaireconomyproject.org