Until the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968 – fifty years ago this month – the bill that would become the Fair Housing Act was the most filibustered bill in history. But with the nation rocked by widespread riots in the wake of the civil rights leader’s murder, Congress spent seven days engaged in political maneuverings that prevented the legislation from being debated, smuggling drafts out of the Capitol to prevent theft or alteration, and lobbying Senators from the South before finally passing the federal Fair Housing Act (FHA) on April 11th, 1968.
The Fair Housing Act was designed to do two things. First, it outlawed discriminatory actions which prevented individuals who were members of a protected class from obtaining housing, mortgages or insurance. Second, it tasked federal, state, and local governments with promoting integration by requiring them to affirmatively further fair housing in their programs.
Today, there are fewer overt acts of discrimination like those seen when the FHA was passed. Instead housing discrimination is now cloaked in different dress. Newspapers no longer separate their advertisements into “Colored” and “White.” Instead, housing providers refuse to rent to people with housing subsidies, a practice that disproportionately impacts people of color (while this type of discrimination is illegal in Connecticut, the Center still receives hundreds of these complaints each year). Or they impose different requirements and rules on applicants of color compared with White applicants.
Laws no longer force individuals labelled “mentally feeble” or people with physical disabilities to be institutionalized; however, stereotypes and unfounded fears lead to the shuttering of group homes or their confinement to high poverty urban areas. Affordable housing for people who are elderly, who in Connecticut are 87% White, is typically welcomed, while similar housing for families with children (more than 60% of CT residents under 18 are African-American or Latino) is often characterized as damaging to the “character of the neighborhood” and protested at public hearings.
As a result of these subtle acts of discrimination, there has been little progress on erasing the segregation caused by past overt acts of discrimination by federal, state, and local governments. While lawsuits have made some progress in desegregating the Hartford area’s schools, little progress has been made in desegregating neighborhoods. The movement to end unnecessary institutionalization of people with disabilities has reduced that practice, but efforts to ensure all neighborhoods welcome people with mental health diagnoses are barely off the ground. Cities and towns still fail to zone for affordable housing, leaving high-poverty areas to absorb and serve the needs of still more people who are poor. And there is more sympathy for millennials who are priced out of desirable housing markets than families with children who pay upwards of 40% of their income for housing.
Yes, we have made progress since 1968, but we will not have a truly integrated society until all neighborhoods welcome all people.
For a closer look at the seven days between MLK’s assassination and the passage of the Fair Housing Act, check out this short documentary from the National Fair Housing Alliance:
A version of this post was originally published as a guest post on the Partnership for Strong Communities blog.