Cover story: The Fair Housing Act at 50

by Joe Ward

Before the federal Fair Housing Act could be signed into law on April 11, 1968, political compromises to ensure its passage in the Senate significantly reduced the impact of the legislation. The change eliminated the government’s ability to bring enforcement actions against violations of the law. While the landmark bill finally banned discrimination in the selling or renting of housing, it left the question of enforcement open ended. In response, some 2,000 fair housing groups took up the responsibility. But in reality, this meant that real estate agents would be on the front lines of policing a new and controversial law.

Fifty years later, the face of racial bias and discrimination in housing has changed, but the real estate industry’s unique position to effect change on the topic remains the same. Though the country has made significant strides in rooting out institutionalized discrimination in housing and other industries, real estate professionals still play a central role in leveling the playing field.

“As Realtors, one of our foundational beliefs is that we know we are the stewards of the right to own and to transfer property,” says Elizabeth Mendenhall, president of the National Association of Realtors. “It’s something we’re very proud of. It is an obligation above and beyond other professionals. But it’s a reminder to us that we’re all the same.”

An agent’s relationship to the federal Fair Housing Act has morphed over time, but its ideas and legality is still a central tenant of the profession. On the 50th anniversary of the landmark legislation, here is how the battle for housing equality has changed over time and how agents can help to ensure its future success.

How we got here

The Fair Housing Act was signed into law exactly a week after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The idea for the law was not new: it was left out of the initial Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Congress had debated its merits through 1967, but it never garnered enough support for passage during that time. President Lyndon Johnson used King’s tragic death to push for the bill’s passage.

King, on top of being the most visible champion of civil rights in America, had also established himself as a leader in the fight against housing discrimination. In 1966, King marched on Chicago’s South Side to protest the confinement of black residents to far-flung communities with adequate housing or services.

Read more from our Fair Housing Issue

King rented one of those apartments to bring attention to the plight of black Americans in northern cities. His supporters attempted to march to a real estate office that was barring black residents from buying in an all-white neighborhood, but King was hit in the head with a rock and a riot broke out.

The incident pushed housing rights to the forefront of the political discussion, and President Johnson sought to honor King’s memory with passage of the housing bill before the civil right martyr was buried.

Johnson’s ploy worked, but the question of how the new law would impact housing discrimination remained to be seen.

Agents on the front lines

There are arguments that the Fair Housing Act was a watered-down law that had more symbolic effect than tangible impact on housing discrimination. Supporters of the argument note that segregation in America is as prevalent as ever. In fact, segregation only dipped slightly in the 1970s — in the years immediately following the bill’s passage — but quickly rebounded, according to an op-ed by Richard H. Sander, a professor of law at UCLA and author of the book “Moving Toward Integration: The Past and Future of Fair Housing.”

Still, there is evidence that the law has had an impact on discrimination. Sander writes that a 1977 study by the department of Housing and Urban Development sought to see how rampant discrimination was. It set out black and white “testers” who sought information about minority or all-white communities. Results showed that black testers faced significantly less discrimination when inquiring about a white area than they did in the 1950s, according to Sander.

Gary Feinberg, an agent with Compass, says international clients of his have learned the hard way about the rigid segregation in America.

Feinberg says he was working with buyers from Venezuela who were looking for a condo away from the expense and glitz of some of Miami’s local markets.

“They went to a neighborhood which is predominantly black to look at a house,” he says. “As they were walking the street, this guy said to them, ‘What are you doing here? Don’t you know this is a black neighborhood?’ They have never encountered an experience like this before. It was the first time they were confronted with the division that is here in America.”

Feinberg says the experience was eye-opening for him as well as his clients. Issues relating to the Fair Housing Act don’t pop up through the course of a normal workday, he says, but his client’s experience strengthened his resolve to work for housing equality.

“To speak very personally, there’s no reason to ever not to be color blind,” he says. “It can never matter who you’re working with. It’s the deal that matters.”

Starting a conversation

Feinberg said it could be helpful for he and other agents to share stories about discrimination in housing. The Miami Association of Realtors is working to do just that.
The association held two fair housing conferences this spring, says Danielle Blake, senior vice president of government affairs for the Miami Association of Realtors. In December, Broward County approved an addition to it fair housing laws to protect for discrimination against income, including Section 8-status. (Miami-Dade has had a similar law since 2009, Blake says.)

Legal counsel for the association came to town to field questions on the new law and other issues pertaining to housing discrimination.

“There have been questions lately about the vouchers themselves. If the market rate is $3,000, and the voucher is only $1,500, did you discriminate if you said no?” Blake says.

Another recent case was also brought up at the meetings. A couple had gotten divorced and listed their home for rent. The home had an in-ground pool. Worried a lawsuit might come their way if a child was hurt, they advertised the house as no children allowed. The couple was sued for discriminating against familial status, Blake says.

Another local issue surrounding fair housing in Florida is the state’s population of seniors, since there are an abundance of senior-citizen communities.

“We talk about these cases,” Blake says.  “You can have the best intentions, but you can’t take everything at face value. You have to give it more thought.

The future of fair housing

The Fair Housing Act includes seven protected classes: race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability and familial status. Sex was added in 1988, the last time the federal law was amended. States and municipalities, however, are able to add to the number of protected classes, as Miami-Dade and Broward counties have.

In 2009, NAR included in its code of ethics a guideline to not allow discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Mendenhall says she would like to see more protections for these classes, and that NAR is working on the case. They are fighting for other classes as well, she says.
“There are some states and municipalities that have included veterans in their housing laws,” she says. “As Realtors, we want to fight for them so they can get fair housing. They fought for our protection, so we want to fight for them.”

The group, as well as its local affiliates and other real estate groups, have been commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Fair Housing Act throughout this year, while also acknowledging the work that still needs to be done.

“We’re commemorating the Fair Housing Act, but we also know there’s a past, there’s where we are in the present and there’s the future, where it’s critical that not just the protected classes, but anyone doesn’t face discrimination in housing,” Mendenhall says.

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