Editor’s Note: Heather K. Way is a clinical professor of law and the director of the Entrepreneurship and Community Development Clinic at The University of Texas at Austin. The views expressed here are solely the author’s.
On the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act this week, the landmark law’s promises to dismantle housing segregation remain unfulfilled and, worse, are under attack by the Trump administration, which has showcased repeatedly its hostility toward opening up housing opportunities for persons of color.
Amid all this, according to a new report, home ownership among African-Americans is as low now as it was when racial discrimination was legal. Meanwhile, the wealth gap between black and white Americans has more than tripled since the passage of the Fair Housing Act.
Now is the time to block the federal government’s efforts to dilute the Fair Housing Act and instead invest in an independent, nonpartisan agency to oversee its enforcement. Now is the time to enact federal and local policies that eliminate the concentration of government-funded affordable housing for families in racially isolated neighborhoods. And now is the time to elect government leaders who are willing to take the bold and brave actions needed to finally fulfill the Fair Housing Act’s mandate to foster inclusive communities.
A recent investigation uncovered how Trump administration officials with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development have been proactively rolling back federal efforts to enforce the Fair Housing Act, including freezing a series of high profile fair housing enforcement cases.
Ben Carson, HUD’s secretary, recently confirmed with lawmakers HUD’s delay of a rule requiring local governments that receive HUD funds to create plans that would help desegregate neighborhoods — and many fair housing advocates fear that rule is now on the chopping block. Carson has previously called the rule “social engineering.”
Under Carson’s watch, HUD has also sought to roll back a policy focused on opening opportunities for low-income renters with federal housing vouchers — many of whom are people of color — to live in safer neighborhoods with better access to strong schools and jobs. A federal court blocked that move.
And then last month, word came out that HUD was striking the promise of inclusive, discrimination-free communities from its mission statement.
It’s not just HUD that is undermining fair housing and inclusive communities. The Trump administration recently stripped the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s Office of Fair Lending and Equal Opportunity of its powers to inspect and enforce lending discrimination cases. As a result, that office is no longer able to pursue actions against banks that discriminate against minority applicants for home loans.
When the Fair Housing Act was first put before Congress, racial segregation was deeply entrenched in our nation’s neighborhoods, fostered by decades of discriminatory government policies and private actions. Heading into 1968, the bill’s prospects for passage appeared bleak, as expanding opportunities for black families to live next door to white families generated fierce opposition both inside and outside the Capitol. Then, Martin Luther King Jr., a leader in the fight for fair housing, was assassinated, propelling passage of the act.
A week after King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act into law. In addition to barring discriminatory actions in the housing market, the law requires the federal government — and local governments receiving funding from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development — to take affirmative steps to promote residential integration.
Today, the law’s pledge to foster inclusive communities remains unfinished. In cities across our country — from Los Angeles to Houston to Atlanta to New York — the race of a child still influences where that child will grow up and what opportunities that child will have access to.
The impact that residential segregation has on educational opportunities for schoolchildren is especially profound, given the close nexus between school attendance boundaries and neighborhood boundaries. More than 8 million children, the vast majority of whom are black and Hispanic, attend racially isolated, high-poverty schools, where they usually face inferior academic offerings and worse educational outcomes — and that number has been growing.
In the country’s largest metropolitan areas, affordable apartments subsidized by the federal government’s $8 billion-a-year tax credit program are being built largely in high-poverty, minority neighborhoods. When developers across the country seek to build affordable apartments in more integrated, higher opportunity neighborhoods, they are often stymied by exclusionary zoning ordinances or local officials who bend to racially motivated opposition from neighbors.
Fair housing is also under assault by state legislatures. In North Carolina, the state Senate passed a bill to repeal the state’s fair housing act and eliminate the state’s civil rights enforcement agency. In Texas, the Legislature has barred cities from adopting ordinances to open housing opportunities for low-income renters with government housing assistance. And in Missouri, a new state law rolls back protections for persons confronting housing discrimination.
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These attacks on fair housing threaten to move our country backward in the struggle for racial equality when we should be strengthening our efforts to expand access to inclusive housing opportunities.
Two years before his assassination, at a march in Chicago to protest housing discrimination, King proclaimed, “Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children.” Yes, now is still the time.
Due to an editing mistake, an earlier version of this article described all renters with federal housing vouchers as people of color. It has been revised to clarify that many are people of color.