Economic justice and fair housing

4/30/2018, 11:42 a.m.
“The housing problem is particularly acute in the minority ghettos. Nearly two-thirds of all non-white families living in the central ...
Marc H. Morial

Marc H. Morial

“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 U.S. Sen. Edward Brooke, the first popularly elected African-American in the U.S. Senate, was interviewed recently on the occasion of the Fair Housing 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,” Mr. Mondale 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 Mr. Mondale, a significant problem with enforcement of the Fair Housing Act was proving intent. He was encouraged by a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found only impact, and not intent, was necessary to prove discrimination. But, he said, he had little faith that the 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 African-American, 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 former 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 Negroes — later renamed the National Urban League — was a focus on housing conditions, employment opportunities and business development.

It’s impossible to extricate economic justice and fair housing. According to a Harvard University study, moving from a high-poverty neighborhood to a low-poverty neighborhood raised incomes, improved college attendance and reduced teen 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. 

The writer is president and chief executive officer of the National Urban League.