A week after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the landmark Fair Housing Act was signed by President Lyndon Johnson. The act, now 50 years old, outlawed discrimination based on race, color, national origin, sex or religion in housing sales, rentals or brokerage services. It was the last of the three great federal civil rights acts passed in the 1960s, including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act. Nonetheless, de facto housing segregation in communities in the United States remains prevalent, numerous studies have found.
“We honor these two moments in our nation’s history by continuing to confront overt and even subtle discrimination that persist half a century later,” wrote Ben Carson, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, in an opinion piece published Tuesday in USA Today.
Marking the occasion of the act signed on April 11, 1968, The National Law Journal asked Ajmel Quereshi, senior counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund Inc., to list five major legal milestones of fair housing in the United States. The organization’s Thurgood Marshall Institute also hosts a retrospective presentation on its website about the history of fair housing law in commemoration of the act’s 50th anniversary.
Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) A U.S. Supreme Court decision holding that courts could not enforce racially restrictive covenants, private contracts or encumbrances on property. The Supreme Court in the 1917 case Buchanan v. Warley had held that statutes and ordinances barring African-Americans from occupying properties in white neighborhoods were unconstitutional, but the ruling effectively merely shifted the restrictions to private encumbrances and contracts. “The U.S. Supreme Court in Shelley held these private contacts were also unconstitutional and it was unconstitutional to enforce them,” Quereshi said.
Thompson v. HUD (2005) Federal District Judge Marvin Garbis ruled that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development violated the Fair Housing Act by concentrating public housing in Baltimore to African-American neighborhoods with low access to jobs and transportation. The case ended in a November 2012 settlement with ”a landmark agreement creating a mobility program creating housing in high opportunity neighborhoods and vouchers for individuals to move into less segregated high opportunity neighborhoods,” Quereshi said. The LDF’s co-counsel included the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, which filed the original lawsuit in 1995, along with Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, Brown Goldstein Levy and Levy Ratner, according to the LDF.
Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project (2015) U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the 5-4 decision that disparate impact claims are permitted under the Fair Housing Act, “where someone doesn’t have the information that a person intentionally discriminated, but can point to a practice or law that disproportionately impacts one racial or ethnic group more than another,” Quereshi said. Discrimination is less likely to be overt that in the 1950s and ’60s, so “it is more important than ever individuals can seek relief when they can point to a practice of discrimination effect even if they can’t point to an explicit racial motivation,” he said. (The housing discrimination claim at the center of the case, however, was later dismissed by the district court in Northern Texas as the Supreme Court had not ruled on its merits.)
Bank of America v. City of Miami (2017) The case concerned allegedly predatory lending practices in minority communities prior to the housing collapse. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “cities had standing, the right, to seek relief under the Fair Housing Act,” Quereshi said, for lending practices that increased housing segregation.
Anti-Discrimination Center v. Westchester County (2009) In long-term litigation that resulted in a federal 2009 court settlement under the False Claims Act, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2015 finally issued “what we believe was an effective regulation reforming the process for participating jurisdictions and create concrete plans to address segregation within jurisdictions and submit those plans called Assessments of Fair Housing (AFHs) for approval. ” In January, however, HUD under Carson extended the deadline for submission of the assessments and said it would come up with a new tool for analysis.
Summing up, Quereshi said, ”We have certainly come a long way since 1947 and Shelley, but we are still dealing with a lot of the issues that led to the Fair Housing Act in the first place. … Housing affects the job you have access to and the type of school you go to, and so the effects are not limited to just where you live but affect every area of both your and your children’s lives.”