In April, Urban Institute researchers writing on Urban Wire reflect on the 50 years since the Fair Housing Act became law, and the steps needed to continue building inclusive, prosperous communities.
The Fair Housing Act aimed to promote access to housing for those who faced systematic discrimination at multiple junctures in the leasing and homebuying processes. Fifty years later it has become important in helping people keep their homes, too.
New national data from the Eviction Lab are shining a spotlight on the prevalence of tenant evictions across America’s cities and towns. The numbers in some places are alarmingly high: one in every nine renter households in Richmond, Virginia, were evicted from their homes in 2016. Those most at risk for eviction include low-income women, especially women of color, as well as families with children. And the Fair Housing Act plays a key role in protecting them.
When women are labeled nuisances
Evictions are most often the result of failing to pay rent on time, but they are also linked to nuisance laws. These state or local laws make property owners responsible for tenant behavior and force them to evict tenants for calling emergency services too often. This practice disadvantages women experiencing domestic violence.
Although victims of domestic violence are not a protected class under the federal Fair Housing Act, over 80 percent of domestic violence victims nationally are women, triggering fair housing concerns. In a 2016 guidance, the Department of Housing and Urban Development points out that discrimination, even if unintended, must not result from nuisance laws, and the laws must not target women or be selectively carried out against them.
For state and local governments required to promote fair access to housing and combat discrimination because they receive federal housing funds, HUD recommends that they change harmful nuisance laws to protect victims of domestic violence or other crimes.
Some states are doing so, but other laws remain on the books. As of 2017, according to Temple University’s Policy Surveillance Program, at least 5 of the 40 largest US cities still had nuisance laws against calls for emergency services, although it appears as if most of these now exempt victims of domestic violence, even if only recently. It is unclear how many other states, cities, and towns have these laws and fail to protect domestic violence victims.
The lasting consequences of eviction for black women
Evictions don’t just turn people out on the street. A formal eviction record can trigger the denial of subsequent applications for rental housing. This has severe consequences for black women living in poverty, who are most likely to face eviction and have a permanent record that locks them out of other housing options.
This trend led the ACLU to launch a fair housing lawsuit last year investigating landlord screening practices based on past evictions. When coupled with the blemish of a missed rent payment on an individual’s credit record, an old eviction record can further contribute to the growing racial wealth gap by placing homeownership disproportionately out of reach for black women.
While the Fair Housing Act has improved access to housing for many who were denied it, the legacy of structural racism on residential opportunity is far from eradicated. The Act remains critical to ensuring that discrimination and targeting of protected classes do not drive evictions, threaten the health, safety, and stability of domestic violence victims and black women, and deny them access to housing in the future.