Op-Ed – Let’s Celebrate an Important Civil Right’s Victory!

Let’s Celebrate an Important Civil Right’s Victory!

John Yinger*

An important civil rights victory in the recent budget agreement has gone largely unnoticed. This victory, a rejection of Republican attempts to dismantle the fair housing enforcement system, should be celebrated, not ignored.

Some people may believe that fair housing is by now a minor issue. If so, they are sadly mistaken: discrimination in housing continues to be widespread. The most recent national study, based on matched pairs of minority and white households in search of housing, found that both African American and Hispanic households encounter some form of unfavorable treatment in over half their visits to housing agents. For example, about 10 percent of African American and Hispanic home seekers are totally excluded from available housing and minority households are shown 25 percent fewer housing units, on average, than are equally qualified whites. Minority households also are offered far less assistance in identifying housing that fits their needs and often are steered to neighborhoods with minority concentrations or low house values. Moreover, discrimination in housing makes a key contribution to many urban ills, including deteriorated housing, concentrated disadvantage in urban schools, poor access of minorities to suburban jobs, and high minority poverty rates.

Others may believe that fair housing is controversial. Again, they are wrong. The vast majority of the American people support freedom of choice in housing. In one recent national survey, for example, 75 percent of whites disagreed with the statement that “white people have the right to keep blacks out of their neighborhoods if they want to.”

So what did some Republicans try to do?

First, they tried to shift HUD’s fair housing enforcement functions (centered in the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity or FHEO) to the Justice Department. This step would have been a serious mistake. Justice plays a crucial role in the enforcement system and deserves great credit for the steps it has taken in recent years. However, Justice has no experience with the activities that are at the heart of FHEO’s mission, namely responding to individual complaints and assisting public and private fair housing organizations at the state and local level; the mandate, history, and culture of the Justice Department also are not well suited to these other tasks. Moreover, moving these activities from HUD to Justice would distract Justice from its vital prosecutorial mission, and the complex, costly transition would undoubtedly set back fair housing enforcement for a long, long time.

Second, they tried to eliminate the Fair Housing Initiatives Program (FHIP), which was passed during the Reagan Administration. FHIP gives grants to community-initiated programs to combat discrimination in housing. These programs are designed and run by community organizations, such as New York’s Open Housing Center, not Washington bureaucrats. For example, many FHIP-funded programs use matched pairs of minority and white home seekers to identify discriminators and, ultimately, to provide apartments or monetary relief to victims of discrimination. It makes no sense to cut a cost-effective program that supports basic democratic principles, local initiative, community responsibility, and a smaller federal bureaucracy.

Finally, they tried to prohibit the use of HUD funds for any activity concerning redlining or discrimination in home insurance, including the continued prosecution of ongoing cases. Such a prohibition would be a serious threat to the integrity of the Fair Housing Act. Evidence from 1994 studies by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners and the Fair Housing Alliance (and from earlier studies by academics) shows that home insurance often is offered at higher prices in minority neighborhoods than in comparable white neighborhoods and indeed sometimes is not offered in minority neighborhoods at all. Exempting insurance companies from the Fair Housing Act would legitimize their discriminatory actions and create a dangerous precedent.

More than 25 years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, we have finally built a system in which community groups, state and local governments, HUD, and Justice work together in support of freedom of choice in housing. The recent budget agreement, which rejects all three of the above proposals, demonstrates that fair housing is still a bi-partisan cause, supported by all but the most extreme Republican voices.

To maintain freedom of choice for all Americans in search of a home and to combat the high costs of housing discrimination, we should strengthen our fair housing enforcement system–not dismantle it. We should resist all future attempts to move FHEO to the Justice Department or to exempt some parties from the Fair Housing Act. We should support, not undermine, state and local enforcement agencies, both public and private. We should improve the flow of information about the behavior of real estate brokers by collecting information on the location of all listings and home sales. We should make certain that the enforcement system extends to housing market participants, including insurance companies and mortgage bankers, who have received relatively little scrutiny in the past. These recent civil rights victories should lead us to redouble our commitment to the principle of fair housing, which remains vital to our promise as a free, democratic–and diverse–nation.

*John Yinger is Trustee Professor of Public Administration and Economics at The Maxwell School, Syracuse University.  His book Closed Doors, Opportunities Lost: The Continuing Costs of Housing Discrimination was published by the Russell Sage Foundation.