What factors might be threatening the Fair Housing Act?

When the Fair Housing Act was passed on April 11, 1968, the goal was to both eliminate housing discrimination as well as encourage residential integration. While some progress has been made over the past 50 years, there is still a long way to go.

According to the 2018 Fair Housing Trends Report from the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA), more than half a million housing discrimination complaints have been processed since 1996, and more than 28,000 housing discrimination complaints were reported in 2017 alone.

“Where one lives determines the likelihood you will attend and graduate from a good school; if you have access to healthy food, clean air, and healthcare; if affordable credit is available for homeownership and investment in the community; and your life expectancy,” the report said.

Fair housing challenges are numerous

While the number of complaints related to race made up 18.5 percent of those filed, the highest percentage of complaints filed were related to disability at 56.7 percent.

The Department of Justice alone has filed more than 90 cases against multifamily housing developers and owners who built non-compliant buildings, which has impacted more than 50,000 units of housing. It has also resulted in more than $28 million in funds to compensate defendants, as well as make additional units of accessible housing.

The report also found that a number of claims were filed in regards to lending discrimination cases, as well as bank- and investor-owners of foreclosed homes.

According to a nationwide investigation by the NFHA along with 22 fair housing organizations, Real Estate Owned (REO) properties were well-maintained in predominantly white communities, while REO properties in comparable communities that were majority black or Latino were less likely to be handled in the same way. The homes were often “unsecured, with boarded windows, overgrown grass and weeds, and usually without signage indicating that they were for sale.”

From 2012 to 2017, the NFHA and several housing discrimination organizations filed HUD administrative complaints against a number of banks, including Wells Fargo, Bank of America, Fannie Mae, Deutsche Bank, Ocwen Financial Corporation and Altisource Portfolio Solutions for the unequal treatment of REO properties in communities of color in metropolitan areas across the country.

“As the 2018 Trends Report shows, we must put an end to the many institutionalized barriers that prevent too many families in this country from fair access to housing,” Lisa Rice, president and CEO of the NFHA, said in a statement.

“We must commit to making every neighborhood a place of opportunity for its residents and to making all communities open to all people, regardless of race, national origin, disability or other protected status. It has been 50 years, and the Fair Housing Act still has not been fully implemented. We cannot build a thriving society as long as our nation is plagued by discrimination, segregation and severe economic inequality.”

Attacks on the Fair Housing Act

Finally, the report found that there have been a significant number of recent actions that “threaten the viability of the Fair Housing Act and inhibit the ability of our nation to address discrimination and promote inclusive communities, to the detriment of millions of individuals and families and to neighborhoods throughout the nation.”

In 2015, HUD issued the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) to fulfill an unmet mandate of the original Fair Housing Act by requiring any community receiving block-grant funding from HUD to complete a comprehensive Assessment of Fair Housing.

But in January 2018, HUD then issued a notice delaying the submission date for the fair housing plans required and suspended the rule until at least 2024. HUD said the suspension allows communities to have more time to address the ruling.

The NFHA reports that the 2015 rule was a “far superior system” for getting HUD grantees to assess and dismantle segregation.

With the suspension of the AFFH rule, all of this is lost and the prospect that jurisdictions will make discernable progress toward meeting fair housing goals, or that HUD will take effective steps to hold them accountable for fulfilling their statutory fair housing obligations, is diminished.

However, action is already being taken with a number of national housing groups — which currently includes the NFHA and the state of New York filing suit in the Federal District Court to reinstate the rule.

According to the New York Times, the groups want to ensure that residents around the country — especially those of black, Hispanic descent and those with low-incomes — are not put at risk or left behind in the event of a natural disaster. 

“We know that disasters have a disparate impact on the most vulnerable populations, especially communities of color,” Madison Sloan, director of Texas Appleseed’s Disaster Recovery & Fair Housing Project, another plaintiff in the lawsuit, said to the New York Times.

“Historically, segregation has forced these communities into the areas most vulnerable to natural disasters. We have to make sure we are rebuilding in a way that remedies, rather than perpetuates, these inequalities,” Rice said.