Cover story: The Fair Housing Act at 50

by Evi Arthur

Before the federal Fair Housing Act could be signed into law on April 11, 1968, political compromises to ensure its passage in the Senate significantly reduced the impact of the legislation. The change eliminated the government’s ability to bring enforcement actions against violations of the law. While the landmark bill finally banned discrimination in the selling or renting of housing, it left the question of enforcement open ended. In response, some 2,000 fair housing groups took up the responsibility. But in reality, this meant that real estate agents would be on the front lines of policing a new and controversial law.

Fifty years later, the face of racial bias and discrimination in housing has changed, but the real estate industry’s unique position to effect change on the topic hasn’t. Though the country has made significant strides in rooting out institutionalized discrimination in housing and other industries, real estate professionals still play a central role in leveling the playing field.

“As Realtors, one of our foundational beliefs is that we know that we are the stewards of the right to own, to transfer property,” says Elizabeth Mendenhall, president of the National Association of Realtors. “It’s something we’re very proud of. It is an obligation above and beyond other professionals. But it’s a reminder to us that we’re all the same.”

An agent’s relationship to the federal Fair Housing Act has morphed over time, but its ideas and legality is still a central tennant of the profession. On the 50th anniversary of the landmark legislation, here is how the battle for housing equality has changed over time and how agents can help to ensure its future success.

“I think it has been very successful,” says Torrence Ford, owner/broker of RE/MAX Premier in Atlanta. “It allows opportunities for minorities and for the city to become more diverse. Do we have further to go? Of course we do.”

How we got here

The Fair Housing Act was signed into law exactly one week after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. The idea for the law was not new: it was left out of the initial Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Congress had debated its merits through 1967, but it never garnered enough support for passage during that time. President Lyndon Johnson used King’s tragic death to push for the bill’s passage.

King, on top of being the most visible champion of civil rights in America, had also established himself as a leader in the fight against housing discrimination. In 1966, King marched on Chicago’s South Side to protest the confinement of black residents to far-flung communities with adequate housing or services.

Read more from our Fair Housing Issue

King rented one of those apartments to bring attention to the plight of black Americans in northern cities. His supporters attempted to march to a real estate office that was barring black residents from buying in an all-white neighborhood, but King was hit in the head with a rock and a riot broke out.

The incident pushed housing rights to the forefront of the political discussion, and President Johnson sought to honor King’s memory with passage of the housing bill before the civil right martyr was buried.

Johnson’s ploy worked, but the question of how the new law would impact housing discrimination remained to be seen.

Agents on the front lines

There are arguments that the Fair Housing Act was a watered-down law that had more symbolic effect than tangible impact on housing discrimination. Supporters of the argument note that segregation in America is as prevalent as ever. In fact, segregation only dipped slightly in the 1970s — in the years immediately following the bill’s passage — but quickly rebounded, according to an op-ed by Richard H. Sander, a professor of law at UCLA and author of the book “Moving Toward Integration: The Past and Future of Fair Housing.”

Still, there is evidence that the law has had an impact on discrimination. Sander writes that a 1977 study by the department of Housing and Urban Development sought to see how rampant discrimination was. It set out black and white “testers” who sought information about minority or all-white communities. Results showed that black testers faced significantly less discrimination when inquiring about a white area than they did in the 1950s, according to Sander.

Such studies show that incidents of overt discrimination in the home selling and buying process have significantly decreased. But segregation and affordability is still a prominent issue for Atlanta and much of the country.

“Most of the conversation is around affordability,” says Ford.

He says homeownership is a vehicle to the middle class for many minorities, but that there are a number of factors preventing this from happening. Nationwide, homeownership rates for whites are at 71 percent, while black homeownership is at 42 percent, according to the National Association of Real Estate Brokers, a historically black real estate group. The group is using the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act to push for 5 million new black homeowners.

At the same time, Ford says that the appraisal process works to keep down property values in minority communities, and that there aren’t enough incentives to invest there. But as affordable housing has become more of a buzzword, there has been movement on the issue.

“We have come a long way,” he says of affordable housing. “Groups are creating affordable housing along the Beltline, so people aren’t being pushed out even further.”

Still, there are still instances of clear discrimination, and it’s not only important agents interject in these, but they must also discuss such instances with fellow agents, says Bill Murray, president of the Atlanta Realtors Association and a broker with Berkshire Hathaway.

“Things like this come up all the time,” he says of housing discrimination. “We talk about it every few months at sales meetings.”

Murray mentioned one example where a Korean couple asked to see houses in predominantly Asian areas. An agent asked the room if he was right to mention that it’s not appropriate for them to do so, Murray says.

“We said, you’re correct,” Murray says. “You can’t show them a neighborhood with a lot of kids or even one without kids. A lot of consumers don’t realize that’s against the rules. But if an agent explains that, it generally isn’t a problem.”

Ford says he was once asked by a gay couple to be pointed in the direction of gay-friendly areas. And while the couple’s intentions were good, such a request still can’t be condoned.

“I told them I had to stick to price point and the housing type they wanted,” he says.

An agent can commonly and mistakenly run afoul of fair housing practices in marketing materials and advertisements for listings, experts said. Even saying “family friendly” can be conceived as discriminatory, Murray says.

Next steps

The Fair Housing Act includes seven protected classes: race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability and familial status. Sex was added in 1988, the last time the federal law was amended. States and municipalities, however, are able to add to the number of protected classes.

In 2009, NAR included a guideline in its Code of Ethics for Realtors not to allow discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Mendenhall says she would like to see more protections for these classes, and that NAR is working on the case. They are fighting for other classes as well, she said.

“There are some states and municipalities that have included veterans in their housing laws,” she says. “As Realtors, we want to fight for them so they can get fair housing. They fought for our protection, so we want to fight for them.”

Ford says he would like to see more federal programs for first-time, minority homebuyers and tax incentives for investing in certain areas.

“In an area that used to be dilapidated, I think it would be great to have tax abatements,” he says.

The Atlanta Realtors Association partnered with many brokerages in the area to have mandatory classes on the topic of fair housing, Murray says. The group is also working with the Georgia Association of Realtors to highlight issues of fair housing.

“What we do is encourage our agents to be focused and think about it,” he says. “Don’t make it so routine that you forget to inform your clients.”

The group, as well as its local affiliates and other real estate groups, have been commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act throughout this year, while also acknowledging the work that still needs to be done.

“We’re commemorating the Fair Housing Act but we’re also know there’s a past, there’s where we are in the present and there’s the future, where it’s critical that not just the protected classes but that anyone doesn’t face discrimination in housing,” Mendenhall says.

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