The Fair Housing Act of 1968 holds an iconic status in American history, particularly in race relations and civil rights. The Act, also nicknamed “Open Housing Act,” prohibits discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, and later – family status, disability, or sex – in the sale, rentals, financing and management of real estate property.
Background to the Fair Housing Act
The Fair Housing Act came on the heels of increased agitation for the recognition of the equal rights of African Americans in the USA. This agitation had been given a legal start with the Emancipation Proclamation and had come to a head with the Civil Rights movement post WW2. The historic Civil Rights Act, which preceded it and abolished segregation, was passed in 1964 – but still, it was not enough. Housing discrimination against the nation’s burgeoning Black population yet prevailed, this time surpassing the boundaries of the deeply “white-supremacist South” and extending to the “liberal” neighborhoods of the North.
Lobbying against racial discrimination in the real estate sector began to gain traction, especially in the wake of the Vietnam war. Families of African-American veterans – some of whom had sacrificed their lives for the country – had to face inequalities in accessing housing merely because of their color. One of the lobbyists was the Massachusetts Senator, Edward Brooke, the first Black Senator to be popularly elected and a key proponent for the Bill. He testified about how, after his return from World War 2, he and his family could not access housing of their choice due to his race. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the G.I. Forum were also among the organizations that relentlessly pressured the Federal Legislature to pass the Fair Housing Bill.
The Californian Rumford Bill, which was passed in 1963 (although later repealed and reinstated), and the Chicago Open Housing Movement in 1966 were additional prime influences for a National Act on Fair Housing.
Although the Bill for the Act was introduced to Congress in 1966, it remained a matter of continued debate till it was passed in 1968.
A Memorial for Martin Luther King Jr
Within the two years that the Bill remained in Congress, it met with opposition in both the Senate and House of Representatives on several occasions as it failed to reach the required majority for its passage. As Mondale commented:
“...A lot of [previous] civil rights [legislation] was about making the South behave and taking the teeth from George Wallace…. This came right to the neighborhoods across the country. This was civil rights getting personal.:”
Then on April 5, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee, where he was to lend support to the sanitation workers on strike. Not only did it deal a heavy blow to the civil rights movement, but it also sparked disillusionment and anger across African American communities in the United States, resulting in widespread riots across the country that destabilized some states, including Washington DC. President Johnson in the wake of King’s murder wrote a letter to the House of Representatives urging the passage of the Bill before the great civil rights leader’s funeral in his honor, given that Dr. King had been a strong voice for open housing in the Chicago marches – and also to douse the rising tensions in the nation.
A few days after, on April 10, 1968, the Bill was passed. And the following day, it was signed into law.
Examples of Housing Discrimination Prohibited By the Fair Housing Act
The passage of the Fair Housing Bill had a ‘revolutionary’ effect on the real estate sector and African American housing rights in that it made the following illegal:
- Refusing the sale or rent of any dwelling to any person due to their race, origin, etc.
- Discrimination in the terms, conditions, or privileges in a sale or rentals
- Making adverts that indicate bias based on race, origin, etcetera in the sale or rental of a home.
- Foregoing maintenance and repairs of the units rented by persons because of their demographic.
- Putting restraints on a renter’s access to services and amenities on a discriminatory basis.
- Coercing, threatening, intimidating, or interfering with a person’s enjoyment or exercise of housing rights because of their race, origin, religion, etc.
Although the Fair Housing Act provided a legal framework against discrimination in access to housing – and is one of the legacies of the civil rights era – the sector still displays racial disparities across the nation and in California today. While legislation is undoubtedly an essential step in defeating all shades of systemic racism in the country’s housing sector, it is but the beginning of the journey.