At 50, Fair Housing Act remains work in progress


Fifty years ago, this nation made a bold and progressive commitment to end the inherently racist practices of housing discrimination and community segregation.

Congress sealed that commitment in passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, and President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed it into law in the turbulence of the immediate aftermath of the assassination of civil-rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Despite some great strides in the ensuing five decades, that commitment today sadly remains an unfinished work in progress in our nation and in our community.

As members of the Martin Luther King Jr. Planning Committee of the Mahoning Valley sponsor a public forum at 5 tonight at the St. Dominic Church Hall in Youngstown on the landmark housing law, it is an opportune time to reflect on the progress made – and setbacks endured – toward ending housing discrimination once and for all in America.

The act itself, technically known as Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, grew out of the Kerner Commission of that year that studied violence and race rioting in Americans cities of that era. One of its prime recommendations focused on ending segregation of blacks in inner cities by expanding housing opportunities.

The act raced through the U.S. House and Senate at breakneck speed that spring and put the federal government on record as a champion of ensuring open housing and ending the pervasive discrimination that had locked most American blacks out of decent homes in racially-diverse communities ever since the end of the Civil War 100 years earlier.

LANDMARK PROVISIONS

For the first time in the history of our republic, the Fair Housing Act offered a hodgepodge of safeguards against discriminatory practices. They included protections for blacks and other minorities covering the rental, sale and financing of housing. It targeted not only landlords but municipalities, banks, real-estate companies and insurance businesses as well.

Over the years, the protections offered had been strengthened to include the disabled and other protected groups. Its once toothless enforcement provisions have been greatly fortified as well.

The result has brought great strides in reducing discrimination in buying and renting housing. But unfortunately, 50 years after its adoption, the FHA has failed to live up completely to its noble potential.

Many American cities remain as segregated – and some more so – than they were in 1968. A study four years ago ranked the Youngstown-Warren metro area the 17th most segregated community in the U.S.

What’s more, the resolve to fight housing discrimination appears to be weakening from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, charged with enforcing the law. Its leader, neurosurgeon and 2016 presidential candidate Ben Carson has failed to impress many with a sincere passion for expanding housing opportunities for all Americans.

In fact, Carson this year has been arguing to remove the words “free from discrimination” as a goal in HUD’s mission statement and to shift its focus from discouraging racial segregation to increasing the housing supply.

That shift would logically assume that discrimination-based segregation has vanished. Clearly, it has not.

A recently released book, “The Fight for Fair Housing,” sponsored by the National Fair Housing Alliance uncovered many instances of lenders who worked with white borrowers despite application deficiencies but who rejected potential black borrowers with identical shortcomings in their applications.

Given that home ownership represents the single most wealth-building asset for Americans, such indignant practices undermine the purpose of the FHA and perpetuate poverty and segregation.

Clearly then, racial polarization remains alive and well in the housing market, and some of the egalitarian goals of the landmark 50-year-old Fair Housing Act remain unfulfilled.

That’s why today – Constitution Day – serves as a fitting backdrop for Americans to recommit themselves to the constitutional guarantees inherent to the landmark legislation and to work to ensure the letter and spirit of the Fair Housing Act one day can be fully reached.

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