On April 4, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. The death of the civil rights leader and activist spurred a wave of civil unrest across the country and helped push through Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, more commonly known as the Fair Housing Act (History). Passed 55 years ago this week, the Fair Housing Act prohibited discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin, and sex. It was amended in 1988 to include familial status and disability. The Act expanded on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which failed to address the rampant housing discrimination in the country.
• Learn how to report housing discrimination.
• Support and volunteer with housing justice organizations like Groundwork Richmond, a group that improves low-resource communities through urban greening projects, thus reversing the side effects of redlining.
• Sign the petition with the Alliance for Housing Justice to back renter housing rights. Support your local tenants’ unions.
• Donate to organizations like Housing Justice for All, fighting to stop evictions and house the unhoused.
Until the 1960s, discriminatory housing practices and policies segregated Black people and other people of color into neighborhoods and federal housing that were often poor, under-resourced, and underserved. These segregationist efforts were created and reinforced on a local, state, and federal level. The Federal Housing Administration, established during the Great Depression to provide homeownership assistance to low-income Americans, routinely limited aid and FHA-insured mortgages to white households (History). They later implemented practices like redlining, rating predominantly Black and immigrant neighborhoods as red or “hazardous” and refusing to lend to borrowers in those neighborhoods.
Without such assistance, Black households—who were also displaced by federally-assisted urban renewal projects in cities during the 50s—were barred from homeownership or forced into predatory loans or overpopulated, neglected public housing, causing lasting inequities and disinvestment in neighborhoods of color (Fair Housing Commission, NPR). Meanwhile, the federal government helped finance white suburbia, increasing overall homeownership from about 30% to more than 60% by 1960, with 98% of federal-approved loans between 1934 and 1968 going to white applicants (American Progress).
For decades, activists and organizations have fought for fair housing, drawing attention to racial injustices and discriminatory practices in the housing market. Organizations like the NAACP and the G.I. Forum, a Latine veterans civil rights organization, successfully lobbied for federal legislation. Campaigns like the Chicago Freedom Movement were also instrumental. Led by Martin Luther King, Jr. and grassroots activists in one of the most segregated cities in America, they organized tenants’ unions, went undercover to expose potential housing discrimination, and held marches through majority-white neighborhoods to pressure the city to provide an open housing market (South Side Weekly). Though city officials reneged on addressing the city’s housing discrimination, the movement helped lay the groundwork for the Fair Housing Act.
Though introduced in 1966, the bill stalled in Congress for years because white America feared its passage would lead to Black people moving into white neighborhoods, driving down property values, and bringing in violence and disorder. Against this resistance, civil unrest continued to grow, coming to a head in the summer of 1967 when 158 race riots occurred throughout the country’s urban communities (History). They were triggered by individual incidents of police brutality and harassment but were the culmination of unsettled unrest from the country’s failure to address racial injustice and inequities. The federal Kerner Commission, after investigating why the riots occurred, said, “What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget–is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it. […] Race prejudice has shaped our history decisively; it now threatens to affect our future. White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II” (Kerner Report).
The Kerner report emphasized the need for better federal programs to address the economic and social inequities, including equal housing. Still, it would take the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 for Congress to pass the Fair Housing Act, with President Lyndon Johnson citing its passage as a testament to King and his legacy (HUD).
The Act did break down barriers in the housing market, providing protection and opportunities to marginalized people, but over a century of discriminatory practices continue to linger.
Racial residential segregation and racial discrimination in housing have not shifted in large metropolitan areas. The Fair Housing Act also didn’t lead to greater rates of Black homeownership (Forbes). A 2021 study found that more than 80% of major metro areas in the U.S. were more segregated in 2019 than in 1990 (The Roots of Structural Racism Project). And 83% of redlined neighborhoods given poor ratings in the 1930s remained highly segregated communities of color as of 2010.
“Fair housing” policies alone won’t reverse over a century of racist, segregationist practices and deep-rooted policies. It will take collective action in our communities to ensure everyone’s right to dignified housing and survival is met.