The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights

The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights  & The Leadership Conference Education Fund
The Nation's Premier Civil and Human Rights Coalition
Civil Rights 101 - Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund - 2001


The effort to end housing discrimination -- sometimes called "the forgotten step-child of civil rights" - has been among most difficult legal battles in the civil rights movement.

But of all the aspects of segregation that civil rights has sought to undo, residential housing segregation has been the most intractable.

IN 1968, in the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, the Kerner Commission (as it was known) made its famous observation that "the nation is rapidly moving toward two increasingly separate Americas . . . . a white society principally located in suburbs, in smaller central cities and in the peripheral parts of large central cities; and a Negro society largely concentrated within large central cities." Just four paragraphs before that stark conclusion, the Commission called for a national fair housing law as "essential to begin such a movement" for "true freedom of choice in housing for Negroes of all income levels . . . ."

CONGRESS RESPONDED to the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and passed the Fair Housing Act -- Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 --banning discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, and sex in most housing transactions. Also in 1968, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling in Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co., which held that the Civil Rights Act of 1866 bans racial discrimination by private, as well as governmental, housing providers. Together, these two events established the framework for the assault on segregated housing.

THE 1968 FAIR HOUSING ACT provided three means of enforcing its anti-basis rules:

  • The U.S. Department of Justice may bring lawsuits where a "pattern or practice" of housing discrimination exists or where alleged discrimination raises an issue of general public importance -- e.g., widespread discrimination by a defendant seller, developer or rental firm.
  • Administrative complaints can be made to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Such complaints could, theoretically, end up in the courts if pursued by the bias victim.
  • Private plaintiffs can proceed directly to court with charges of housing discrimination.

THE 1968 ACT, however, provided only limited mechanisms for enforcement, allowing the Justice Department to go to court only in "pattern and practice" cases or when a group of persons was discriminated against in a manner that "raises an issue of general public importance." In 1972, moreover, the Supreme Court called HUD's role in enforcing fair housing "minimal."

THE NEED FOR FURTHER ACTION was additionally reinforced by 1987 HUD estimates that as many as two million instances of housing discrimination were occurring each year. Twenty years after passing the Fair Housing Act, Congress sought to strengthen the law's enforcement provisions and passed the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, signed by President Reagan on September 13, 1988. The key provisions of the 1988 act include:

  • Extensions of the law's basic protection against discrimination in housing to families with children and to people with disabilities.
  • Reform of the enforcement and remedies portion of the law, including requirements that the Justice Department represent individual victims of housing discrimination after receiving referrals from HUD. In addition, the enforcement and remedies provisions established a system of administrative judges to decide discrimination disputes and to award actual damages, injunctive relief and civil penalties of up to $50,000.

AS A COROLLARY to effective enforcement of fair housing laws, Congress in 1987 created the Fair Housing Initiatives Program (FHIP) to provide grants to private and public fair housing agencies. The Reagan administration and the National Association of Realtors (NAR) sought to constrain the FHIP by barring grants to agencies that engaged in systematic "testing" -- a technique for identifying discrimination by using teams of equally qualified blacks and whites who might, for example, seek to buy the same house or rent the same apartment. Congress rejected the Reagan-NAR guidelines, but a 1992 report found the Department of Housing and Urban Development "has not made any progress in utilizing this important investigative technique in evaluating the complaints it receives."]

FAIR HOUSING ENFORCEMENT became a priority during the Clinton Administration, which saw significant increases in the filing of complaints, increased funding for private fair housing initiatives, reaffirmed commitment to the use of disparate impact theory under the Fair Housing Act, and expansion of the fair housing testing program under the leadership of the Justice Department (which, in turn, helped trigger new pattern-or-practice filings).

BUT OF ALL THE ASPECTS OF SEGREGATION that civil rights has sought to undo, residential housing segregation has been the most intractable. Indeed, the 2000 Census shows relatively little change in residential segregation patterns, despite the nation's growing racial and ethnic diversity.

An analysis of new Census data by the Lewis Mumford Center concluded that "[t]he average white person continues to live in a neighborhood that looks very different from those neighborhoods where the average black, Hispanic, and Asian live. For example, the average white person in metropolitan American lives in a neighborhood that is almost 83% white and only 7% black. In contrast, a typical black individual lives in a neighborhood that is only 33% white and as much as 54% black."

MOREOVER, RELATIVELY LITTLE HAS CHANGED IN THE METROPOLITAN AREAS where most blacks, Hispanics and Asians live. Housing experts measure segregation by a "dissimilarity index": a 100-point scale, with 100 representing total segregation where all African Americans and all whites live in racially homogeneous areas. In contrast, a "zero" on the scale represents a perfect random housing distribution by race. A 1985 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights examined 1980 Census data and found that the index was still 70 in the least segregated cities -- Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. And in cities like Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland, racial isolation escalated the index to around 90.

BY 2000, conditions had improved only slightly. San Francisco and Washington, DC had segregation indices in the low 60s, while Chicago and Detroit remained in the low 80s - Cleveland had improved to an index of 77.

EARLY ANALYSES OF DATA FROM THE 2000 CENSUS by the Washington Post also concluded that Hispanics increasingly live in largely segregated areas, and that "blacks remain more segregated than Hispanics in every region of the country." The analysis further found that segregation levels are higher in midwestern cities and large urban areas, "where blacks and whites have a history of living in separate neighborhoods," while integrated neighborhoods are more common in the faster-growing West and South, and in smaller metropolitan areas.

CLOSELY RELATED to the issue of fair housing is that of fair lending. Very few Americans can make the American dream of home ownership a reality without a loan.

THE CLINTON ADMINISTRATION also provided strong support to fair lending enforcement under both the Fair Housing Act and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974, which prohibit discrimination in home mortgage lending practices. Such efforts include targeting practices such as "redlining" (a lender's practice of limiting the neighborhoods in it does business based on the race or national origin of the people who live there); discrimination in underwriting (applying different standards for assessing an applicant's creditworthiness based on race, national origin, or other protected characteristics); and predatory lending (charging exorbitant rates to or imposing other exploitative lending practices upon individuals who lack the necessary credit history for a loan from a "prime" lender).

THE COMMUNITY REINVESTMENT ACT, enacted in 1977, offers an additional tool in the battle against redlining and similar practices, by encouraging banks and thrifts to invest in all segments of the community from which they collect deposits, including minority neighborhoods.

RECENT YEARS HAVE BROUGHT SOME PROGRESS, as home ownership rates have increased for all Americans, including minorities. From 1993 to 1998, home mortgage loans to African-American increased by 72%, those to Hispanic borrowers increased by 87%, 52% for Native Americans, and 46% for Asian Americans. Yet significant work remains. 1999 data from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) show that only 47% of African-American families and 46% of Hispanic families are homeowners, compared to 73% of white families. These disparities in home ownership rates help contribute to the continuing, substantial gap in wealth between whites and nonwhites.

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