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50 years after Fair Housing Act, still long way toward ending segregation

Marc Morial / April 19, 2018

“The housing problem is particularly acute in the minority ghettos. Nearly two-thirds of all non-White families living in the central cities today live in neighborhoods marked with substandard housing and general urban blight. Two major factors are responsible. First: Many ghetto residents simply cannot pay the rent necessary to support decent housing. In Detroit, for example, over 40 percent of the non-White occupied units in 1960 required rent of over 35 percent of the tenants’ income. Second: Discrimination prevents access to many non-slum areas, particularly the suburbs, where good housing exists. In addition, by creating a ‘back pressure’ in the racial ghettos, it makes it possible for landlords to break up apartments for denser occupancy, and keeps prices and rents of deteriorated ghetto housing higher than they would be in a truly free market.”

– Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (the Kerner Commission), 1968

Former Vice President Walter Mondale, who co-sponsored the Fair Housing Act along with Edward Brooke, the first popularly elected African American U.S. Senator, was interviewed this week on the occasion of the Act’s 50th anniversary.

“There’s been a struggle to get the Fair Housing Act recognized as real law, and enforce it at the state and local level,” he said. “I would say we haven’t done very well at it. I think it has made significant progress possible in America, but we’re not there yet.”

According to Mondale, a significant problem with enforcement of the Fair Housing Act was proving intent. He was encouraged by a 2015 Supreme Court ruling that found that only impact, and not intent, was necessary to prove discrimination. But, he said, he had little faith that he current administration would aggressively enforce the law.

Indeed, just last month, the National Urban League and other civil rights groups reacted with horror to a decision by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson to strike the words “inclusive” and “free from discrimination” from HUD’s mission statement.

Around the same time, news broke that the head of the department’s Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity Division had ordered a hold on the fair housing investigations given the highest priority by Secretary Carson’s predecessor.

In late 2016, HUD opened an investigation into a report that Facebook allowed advertisers to exclude Black, Hispanic and Asian-American users from seeing their ads. One of Secretary Carson’s first actions upon taking office was to kill the investigation. Secretary Carson also tried to cancel a program created under President Obama that would make it easier for housing voucher recipients to move to more stable neighborhoods. A federal court blocked the move.

Fair housing has been a top priority of the Urban League Movement since our founding more than a century ago. Among the seven objectives outlined in the founding documents of the Committee on Urban Conditions Among Negros – later renamed the National Urban League – was a focus on housing conditions, employment opportunities and business development.

Urban League programs have helped millions of Americans to prepare for and buy a home, prevent mortgage default and foreclosure, achieve financial literacy and manage credit, and learn how to enforce their rights as tenants and borrowers.

It’s impossible to extricate economic justice and fair housing. According to a Harvard study, moving from a high-poverty neighborhood to a low-poverty neighborhood raised incomes, improved college attendance, and reduced teen-age pregnancy. Zip code can predict life expectancy better than genetic code.

That’s why the nation must prioritize fair housing. Fifty years after the passage of Fair Housing Act, it’s clear that we are not. As we said in our letter to Secretary Carson:

“You have spoken of the squalid conditions of your childhood neighborhood in Boston; you have experienced first-hand the demoralizing wounds of segregation and racism, and for a time, according to your spokesman, benefitted from the safety net of housing subsidy. You must bring these experiences to bear in your responsibility to uphold the duties of your office.”

Marc Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League. Visit the organization’s Web site:


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