Fifty years ago on April 11, Congress enacted the Fair Housing Act, the last of the three great civil rights laws of the 1960s. Along with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act, it was an attempt by Congress to translate the movement led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and others into enduring statute. But it also has the more dubious distinction of being the most contested, most ignored and, at times, most misunderstood of those laws.
For most of the 20th century, an array of forces worked to divide American communities into black and white quarters. Some involved explicit discrimination, including racial redlining in federal mortgage insurance, and real estate covenants that restricted home buyers by race. But some were more subtle, like the steering by real estate agents of racial minorities into certain neighborhoods, biased lending and underwriting, and the concentration of low-income housing in low-income neighborhoods.
By the late 1960s, racial tensions came to a head, marked by civil disturbances that the bipartisan Kerner Commission attributed to the growth of “two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” The fair housing bill, which had been filibustered for many years by segregationist senators, received a critical push from this report. Provisions that would have exempted single-family homes were defeated, and the law passed the Senate.
Then, on April 4, 1968, Dr. King was assassinated. His death shook the nation, setting off another round of disturbances. Something had to be done — not just about America’s ugly history of housing discrimination but also about the divided system that had led the nation to this awful moment. The assassination dislodged the stalled housing bill from the House Rules Committee, and one week later the Fair Housing Act was signed into law.
The law was Congress’s effort to remedy a great historical evil: the large-scale exclusion and isolation of blacks from white communities. In the Jim Crow South, white and black citizens were kept apart to confirm and reinforce the idea of white superiority. Residential segregation accomplished the same result elsewhere, but on a much larger scale. The Fair Housing Act was intended to prevent and reverse all this.
In the half-century since its passage, the law has had champions from both parties. One of the greatest was a Republican, George Romney, who, as secretary of Housing and Urban Development, fought against suburban exclusion. Civil rights organizations like the National Fair Housing Alliance have worked with administrations of both parties to carry out the law.
But the law has also often suffered from neglect. The public servants tasked with implementing it have often forgotten — or refused to pursue — its ultimate goal of building an integrated society. The evil of residential segregation has waned at some times and in some places, but in others, like my home state, Minnesota, segregation has only grown.
The act has survived long enough to witness a curious debate over its intent. Some scholars have suggested that its functions can be divided into “anti-discrimination” and “integration,” with the two goals working at cross purposes. At times, critics suggest the law’s integration aims should be sidelined in favor of colorblind enforcement measures that stamp out racial discrimination but do not serve the larger purpose of defeating systemic segregation.
To the law’s drafters, these ideas were not in conflict. The law was informed by the history of segregation, in which individual discrimination was a manifestation of a wider societal rift.
Though the overarching aim of the law was to create integrated communities, Congress could not simply direct the whole of America to start integrating. Instead, like all laws, the Fair Housing Act tried to accomplish its goal through a variety of more-detailed provisions, each of which, its authors felt, would facilitate integration.
In private housing markets, where Congress’s authority is indirect, the law does what it can: forbids discrimination and segregation. Prohibitions include discrimination in the sale or rental of housing, racially targeted advertising for housing and discriminatory real estate transactions.
But the act also sought more-direct remedies to the problem of segregation. Congress has nearly unlimited authority to issue commands to the federal bureaucracy. The Fair Housing Act utilizes this power by requiring all executive departments and agencies to administer programs relating to housing in a manner that “affirmatively” furthers fair housing.
Although these provisions are some of the law’s strongest tools, they also have proved some of the most difficult to carry out. The bureaucracy has often allowed people who prefer the segregated status quo to obstruct and delay. HUD, for instance, did not get around to fully carrying out these provisions until 2015.
Today, new research shows even more clearly than in 1968 that where you live matters. We know that growing up in an integrated community provides children with a better chance to graduate from high school, attend college, get and keep good jobs, earn a higher income and pass on wealth to subsequent generations.
Yet the Trump administration has sought to delay enforcement of the 2015 HUD integration rules by as much as seven years. Ben Carson, the HUD secretary, has referred to these rules — essential to the act he is supposed to safeguard — as “mandated social engineering.”
This is the story of the first 50 years of the Fair Housing Act: gradual progress and frequent setbacks. If the law’s drafters could have been accused of anything, it was excessive optimism about how easily a segregated society could be unified. But even as the epochal events surrounding its passage fade from collective memory, the Fair Housing Act persists. It remains a bulwark for advocates of justice and equality, as they advance, inch by inch, toward a fairer, more integrated nation.
Walter F. Mondale was vice president under President Jimmy Carter. As a Democratic senator from Minnesota, he was a co-author of the Fair Housing Act.