Volume 1 Number 4FAIR HOUSING LEGISLATION INTRODUCED IN CONGRESS
Senators Charles McC. Mathias, Jr. (RMD) and Edward M. Kennedy (DMA) have introduced new legislation to strengthen the enforcement provisions of the Fair Housing Act (Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968), and to broaden the protected classes to include disabled persons and families with children. The bill represents a renewal of the longstanding effort to strengthen fair housing enforcement. A companion bill has been introduced in the House by Representatives Hamilton Fish, Jr. (RNY), and Don Edwards (DCA).
The Need for the amendments
The Mathias Kennedy bill is a response to widespread evidence that families who encounter racial discrimination in the housing market do not have an effective remedy. While the Fair Housing Law enacted by Congress in April 1968 prohibits discrimination in the rental, sale, marketing, and financing of the Nation's housing, public and private, the only effective means of enforcement is through the courts which is a long and costly process. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has primary responsibility for the enforcement of the Fair Housing Act, but "is significantly hampered in its power to require compliance with Title VIII because if it finds discrimination, it can use only informal methods of conference, conciliation, and persuasion to bring about compliance" (See U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, The Federal Civil Rights Enforcement Effort 1974 Volume II To Provide ... For Fair Housing (December 1974)). Failing in these efforts, HUD's only recourse is to refer the case to the DOJ for litigation. HUD cannot issue cease and desist orders and it cannot initiate litigation against parties it determines are practicing discrimination. Under the Act, the Department of Justice is authorized "to bring suit against any person or group of persons believed to be engaged in a pattern or practice of housing discrimination" (To Provide... For Fair Housing). But the law does not authorize the Department to bring suit to redress an isolated instance of discrimination. And, fair housing advocates have been critical of the Department of Justice's enforcement policies during the Reagan Administration.
... [T]he Department of Justice, the one Government agency that has true enforcement powers the power to institute litigation has so curtailed its activities that it is no longer a major factor in fair housing enforcement. Indeed, for more than 1 year after the Reagan administration took office, the Department of Justice did not file a single fair housing law suit. In the nearly 3 years since the Reagan administration assumed office, Justice has filed a total of six fair housing law suits, only one of which can be said to be of any potential importance measured by the standard of either establishing a significant legal precedent or bringing about some kind of institutional reform (Martin E. Sloane, "Federal Housing Policy and Equal Opportunity," U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, A Sheltered Crisis: The State of Fair Housing in the Eighties (September 1983)).
The Fair Housing Act of 1986 would strengthen HUD's enforcement mechanism by providing an administrative remedy that proponents say is simple and inexpensive. If HUD determines that a complaint of housing discrimination is valid and is unable to resolve the complaint through conciliation, the agency will file a charge on behalf of the complainant with an administrative law judge. The complainant has the right to intervene in the hearing, and the decision of the administrative law judge may be appealed to the federal court of appeals for the circuit in which the discriminatory practice is alleged to have occurred. If discrimination is found by the administrative law judge, equitable arid declaratory relief (including orders requiring the respondent to sell or rent the house to the complainant) as well as compensatory and punitive damages may be awarded. Similar types of administrative enforcement procedures are used by 28 other federal agencies and departments. The bill also provides for an application for an order to hold a house off the market while the case is being decided.
Introduction of the bill comes at a time when "the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that there are more than two million instances of racial housing discrimination each year. Only 4,500 complaints are ever filed with [IUD or similar state and local agencies because of the lack of confidence citizens have in the existing conciliation process." Only 20 percent of the complaints that are filed are successfully resolved.