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Why Fair Housing is Key to Systemic Equality

A row of apartment buildings.
Here’s how discrimination continues to impact access to housing today, and why we're fighting to ensure all people have equal access.
A row of apartment buildings.
Sandra Park,
Former Senior Staff Attorney,
ACLU Women's Rights Project
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May 5, 2023

Few fights are more pivotal to ending systemic inequality than the fight for fair and stable housing. When Martin Luther King, Jr. launched a campaign to end slums in 1966, he connected the struggle to obtain decent housing with the need to end what he called slum schools, work, health care, and all forms of racial segregation. Today, fair housing remains the key to addressing deepening income inequality and forced displacement from our communities, as the long-lasting reach of discriminatory housing practices constantly shape who has access to quality education, health care, security, opportunity, and wealth.

Let’s break down why fair housing is critical to the fight for systemic equality.

What does “fair housing” mean, and why is it a civil rights issue?

Historic and ongoing segregation and housing discrimination in our country have prevented Black people and other people of color, women, LGBTQ people, families with children, people with disabilities, immigrants, and many more from living in affordable housing in communities that offer greater opportunity. Housing is a basic human right, and equal access to housing is a civil right guaranteed under our laws. To create a more just society, we must work to end housing policies and practices that disproportionately lock out marginalized communities from safe and stable housing. Fair housing means that all of us — regardless of our race, where we’re born, our gender, or whether we have a disability — have equal access to safe and stable housing.

What was the first federal law aimed at addressing housing discrimination nationwide?

Before new civil rights laws were adopted, it was commonplace for landlords and realtors to consider white, married men as the primary “deserving” candidates for housing leases and loans, intentionally denying housing to Black and immigrant families, unmarried couples, families with children, or women altogether. Federal, state, and local governments carried out a range of policies that increased segregation, including refusing to insure mortgages in Black neighborhoods (referred to as “redlining”) and funding development of suburban housing for white families.

In response to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Kerner Commission report warning Congress of a “separate and unequal” America, Congress passed the Fair Housing Act (FHA) in 1968. The law was aimed at curtailing widespread segregation and discrimination in housing, including when purchasing or renting a home, and established the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Following improvements in the law, the Fair Housing Act now prohibits discrimination in housing on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, familial status, national origin, and disability.

How are Black communities disproportionately impacted by housing discrimination?

Racial inequality is at the root of and continues to perpetuate housing injustice across communities. Black women face much higher rates of eviction than others, and the scarlet “E” on their records locks them out of better housing — along with the better schools and jobs that often accompany it. White people remain much more likely than their Black peers to be homeowners, even after accounting for factors like location and education. A white person who did not graduate high school is more likely to be a homeowner than a Black person with a college degree.

How is the Fair Housing Act used to challenge discrimination?

The Fair Housing Act has been deployed to end many explicitly discriminatory practices, but governments, housing providers, realtors, and others also perpetuated — and continue to perpetuate — discrimination in less obvious ways. Many marginalized communities face serious barriers to housing opportunities, such as unfair tenant screening policies that deny housing to people who receive a housing subsidy or who have any type of criminal or eviction record, the refusal to grant reasonable accommodations based on disability, or sexual harassment committed by landlords and their staff.

The Fair Housing Act provides protections to confront many of these barriers, including policies that seem neutral but disproportionately harm protected groups, like people of color, women, and people with disabilities. For example, the ACLU has challenged policies evicting domestic violence survivors based on the abuse they experience, as well as policies that reject housing applications from people based on an arrest or conviction record (even if the record is inaccurate, old, or minor) because of the disparate impact on women and people of color, respectively. After decades of legal precedent recognizing “disparate impact” liability, HUD issued a formal regulation in 2013, and affirmed it again last month — providing advocates with an important tool to eliminate practices that shut out too many families from housing.

How does the Fair Housing Act promote more inclusive communities?

Another critical provision of the FHA established that HUD and programs it funds must “affirmatively further” fair housing in communities. The FHA was never meant to be simply a static tool for people facing discrimination. Instead, the FHA requires proactive, inclusive programs dismantling racial segregation and creating thriving communities for all.

In 1995, the ACLU of Maryland filed a class action lawsuit against the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development on behalf of Carmen Thompson and five other residents of Baltimore public housing units. The resulting federal court victory in Thompson v. HUD supported thousands of families to move from racially isolated, high-poverty neighborhoods and helped establish the responsibility of communities to promote housing opportunity under the Fair Housing Act.

HUD recently issued a proposed regulation on how communities can affirmatively further fair housing by creating equity plans that analyze barriers to fair housing and propose concrete steps for addressing them. The new regulation, once it is issued, will be a major step forward in realizing the full promise of the Fair Housing Act.

What does the ACLU’s work in combatting housing discrimination look like today?

Particularly after the housing crash of 2008 and the COVID-19 pandemic, both of which had outsized economic impacts on communities of color, the fight for fair housing remains a central project in the fight for more just communities. The ACLU and its nationwide affiliate network continues to lead in this fight. Here are a few examples of our recent work:

  • We challenge local nuisance or “crime-free” housing ordinances, which authorize cities to coerce landlords into evicting families because they called the police or live in properties where legal violations occur, as well as impose arrests and conviction record screening on all housing applicants — not to make communities safer but to keep out families of color. These laws particularly threaten Black families, domestic violence survivors, and people with disabilities with the loss of their homes.
  • We push for legislation establishing right to counsel in eviction cases. Research clearly shows the cascading harms of evictions, as well as the enormous costs it imposes on communities. Nationally, only 3 percent of renters have legal representation, compared to 81 percent of landlords on average. Providing counsel to renters is a crucial step for advancing due process and ending unjust evictions.
  • We combat screening policies that categorically deny housing applicants who have any type of eviction record. This black-listing especially harms Black women and their families, as they are much more likely to face housing rejections based on a prior eviction filing, even if they won their cases.
  • We advocate for the housing rights of domestic and sexual violence survivors, who are too often evicted because of the violence they experience, especially when they are women of color.
  • We push for courts and the federal government to fully implement the FHA through decisions, regulations, and other measures. Opening safe and affordable housing opportunities to all is vital to fostering thriving communities, and the FHA is an essential tool toward achieving that goal.

Learn more about the ACLU’s work for fair and just housing and our fight for systemic below:

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