Fair Housing Laws Enacted After MLK Assassination Promises a Bias-Free Housing Market
CLEVELAND — Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered today. Forty nine years ago today. The assassination triggered riots throughout the country and Congress, frankly, had no idea how to deal with it. One reaction was to yank out of a congressional committee legislation which had been bottled up for years promising the nation fair housing. By doing so, many in Congress felt it would quell the riots. Maybe not, but it was worth a try.
In fact, from the day of Dr. King’s April 4 murder, both houses of Congress rocketed passage of the bill which outlawed housing bias and had it hand-carried to the president.
On April 11, Lyndon Johnson signed it, one week after the assassination. No law in American history has that kind of dramatic pedigree. Not in debate was that the Fair Housing Act would be the direct legislative legacy to Dr. King. And it remains so today.
The function of fair housing laws was to end housing discrimination, both public and private. A lofty goal which many felt unattainable at the time. The true purpose of the law was to stop racially segregating rental and sales practices, along with a battery of other unfair housing practices that cities, banks and home insurers used. Almost four decades later, housing bias still goes on, but generally not at the institutional level that existed before the act’s passage.
By the early ’70s, the housing section of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division was the nation’s pre-eminent anti-bias fighting force when it came to unlawful housing discrimination. Justice Department lawyers litigated Fair Housing Act cases aggressively. And the cases were difficult to lose, mostly because, when discrimination was reported, testers of a different race were dispatched to confirm that the only variable in not renting was because of race.
That was probably why, in the mid-1970s, as an example, in the case of United States of America v. Trump, the owners/defendants agreed to be subjected to a comprehensive injunction and court consent order rather than face a federal court showdown. While there was no finding of guilt or admission of any wrongdoing by the defendants, the consent order facilitated a more open and fair way of processing people seeking housing.
And while Jeff Sessions, the present attorney general, expressed as a former U.S. senator an open displeasure with Justice Department consent orders like in the Trump case, consent orders remain the most common and least expensive way of resolving federal civil rights violations.
And, at least as a candidate, President Donald Trump bristled when the disturbing allegations in the Trump case were raised by reporters. So it may be that neither the president nor the attorney general is likely big fan of the Fair Housing Act.
The question in the minds of those who believe that the commitment to fair housing is a commitment to American values is whether we’ll see a pullback in the fight against policies and practices which restrict access to housing.
That brings us to today. The killing of Dr. King on the porch of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis and the Fair Housing Act it generated in tribute have present-day realities. Will the Trump administration put the brakes on aggressive federal fair housing enforcement?
On an idealistic level, doing so would openly disserve Congress’ legislative tribute to Dr. King. It would also disserve the nation’s moral and statutory commitment to enjoin intentional racist housing practices.
On a practical level, every act of housing bias not enforced by the Fair Housing Act diminishes the rule of law. It also diminishes the personhood of those Americans otherwise financially able to buy or rent a home.
In acknowledging the Fair Housing Act’s importance, it was for good cause that the nation’s highest court called housing discrimination a vestige of slavery. It’s hard to believe that 19th Century anti-slavery legislation is commonly cited by federal courts in dealing with battling racial discrimination in the American housing market in the 21st century. But housing bias as a badge of slavery is the strongest ethical reason for Justice Department enforcement in removing obstructions to housing access.
Despite the toxic history of prior discrimination in the housing market before the Fair Housing Act, Americans are largely a fair and kind people who support a bias-free marketplace. We expect from government the advancement of the rule of law, especially when it comes to the human rights of our people.
While the absence of vigorous fair housing law enforcement reduces the expectation of justice, it does far more. Losing a home because of housing bias is a serious personal and economic injustice. But anything short of strong Fair Housing Act enforcement by the Justice Department signals an immeasurable disregard for the very reason the Act was passed in the first place.
Avery Friedman is a civil rights lawyer and visiting distinguished adjunct professor in constitutional law at Ursuline College in Pepper Pike. He has been a weekly legal analyst for CNN for the past 16 years.