Fifty Years After the Fair Housing Act, Discrimination is Still an Issue

The Fiftieth Anniversary of the Fair Housing Act (FHA) of 1968, celebrated this past April, begs the question: where do we stand as a nation half a century later? The enactment of this law is the legacy of the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and many other civil rights activists, and as a result, this question is often raised particularly around race and national origin.

FHA, as amended in 1988,  makes housing discrimination illegal on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, religion, familial status, and disability.  In addition to the federal protections Massachusetts fair housing law prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of marital status, military status, ancestry, age, sexual orientation or gender identity   genetic information, and source of income.

Complaints are filed everyday on the grounds of FHA, however, the amount of race and national origin cases pale in comparison to the other protected classes. This does not correlate necessarily with actual occurrences of discrimination in housing. This fact proves the need for more funding for fair housing work.   The more agencies can do the strategic work the more complaints can ultimately be filed to report instances of racial biases, better reflecting what occurs everyday in the housing market.

There are several forms of housing discrimination  including, but not limited to, making housing unavailable, steering, discriminatory advertising and disparate impact. Foundation dollars and unrestricted funding streams have decreased in the past decade and as a result affect the effectiveness of strategic preventive and enforcement work.

Complaint based housing discrimination trends do not always reflect actual housing discrimination trends in a particular area, especially when referring to under reported protected class discrimination. Such cases, like race and national origin, continue to be under reported at agencies. This seems to be due to a confluence of factors including the need for more outreach efforts, misappropriation of means of discrimination, revolving door discrimination and ultimately a lack of funding dollars.

The psychology of re-victimization and the misdiagnosis of individuals that flag and file race and national origin discrimination complaints is deeply rooted in our nation’s history. Individuals are made to feel as if their claims are unwarranted, delusional, or exaggerated experiences.  This continues to stigmatize this narrative and stops folks from reporting. Complainants are sometimes shamed for reporting on issues that are seemingly just “feelings.” Often times complainants will get placed in a box of mental illness because an experience is a type of “intangible” injustice.

How then do we work to fight housing discrimination  in lieu of under reported complaints? Increased funding is essential and will lead to better education and outreach efforts, systemic and audit based testing, trained intake specialist, and race and place dialogues series are some solutions.

This funding can be used to inform individuals of their rights through education and outreach efforts. Large media campaigns, grassroot organization, fairs, forums, community meetings, local television broadcasting, media outlets (including social media), housing provider certifications, academic lectures and the like are all useful tools to get the word out about fair housing.

Increased funding to continue fair housing work and extensive systemic and audit based testing is the way, aside from lack of complaints, to attempt to fix  the trends that correlate with actual discrimination acts. Testing allows us to isolates affordability or other factors that could contribute to a person not being able to qualify for housing, as opposed to if their race is a factor.

Additional funding will lend to appropriate training for intake specialist to better learn how to take complaints around sensitive experiences including but not limited to race. Implicit biases versus overt acts is often present  in racial injustice reports and it’s important to document these incidents. As overt acts have surely dissipated over the 50 years, the sometimes nonconscious implicit injustices still play a role in the way in which we interact within society as it refers to protected classes.

Lastly, race and place dialogues are developed in communities in an effort to help to shape upcoming generations to have more discussions around race and other differences so that there are fewer instances of overt and implicit biases. These forums are a preventative measure that need more focused efforts.

The subtleness of housing discrimination patterns can be seen when looking at housing market trends in Greater Boston. Issues around gentrification, steering, redlining, and revolving door discrimination are often unreported and unidentified. As a result, people impacted by housing discrimination   have less access to opportunities, which leads to many other injustices and inequalities. This drives the patterns of protected bases disparities and trends that mirror that of 1968. These injustices shape our society and sometimes makes us uneasy to discuss. We have not fully overcome these societal issues and as a result we justify questioning the validity of complaints so that we can feel better about an inaccurate state of our society. Housing is the key to a person’s potential and access to  opportunities.

As we reform our view of equitable housing,  we must not only view areas of opportunity from a financial gain perspective. Disinvested areas later become unsustainable communities and these imbalances lead to loss of opportunity and displacement for particular groups of people. This is an area that we must continuously focus our resources, despite what type of complaint trends are reported . This year marks the 20th Anniversary of the Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston and the fight to end housing discrimination continues, as it is also met with many of these barriers.

Whitney Demetrius is the Deputy Director of the Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston

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