Urban Wire Housing Discrimination: How Far Have We Come Since the March on Washington?
Margery Austin Turner
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In the 1960s, black families looking for a place to live faced blatant discrimination from apartment building owners, home sellers, real estate agents, and community associations. Because of their race, they were denied homes and apartments in neighborhoods of their choice. Housing discrimination helped produce high levels of residential segregation in metropolitan areas across the country, excluding blacks from neighborhoods with high-quality housing, schools, and other public services.

The 1963 March on Washington called for an end to housing discrimination and segregation, and among the landmark legislation passed in the years immediately following, the federal Fair Housing Act (1968) outlawed racial discrimination in the private housing market. Soon thereafter, the newly founded Department of Housing and Urban Development launched the first of what became a roughly decennial series of studies measuring the prevalence of housing discrimination nationwide.

The latest national discrimination study was published in June and reports levels of discrimination against black, Hispanic, and Asian renters and homebuyers. Today, the blatant “door slamming” discrimination of the 1960s and 1970s is rare, but other, less easily detectable forms of discrimination persist. Most important, minority homeseekers are told about and shown fewer homes and apartments than if they were white, raising their housing search costs and restricting their housing options.

The fact that blatant discrimination against well-qualified minority homeseekers is rare doesn’t mean it never occurs. For example, the Fair Housing Justice Center recently brought suit against a real estate broker marketing two large housing cooperatives in the Bronx. Paired testing revealed that blacks weren’t offered or shown any homes in these co-ops, while comparably qualified whites were offered and shown nine homes. The lawsuit was resolved for injunctive relief and a monetary award, and the real estate broker agreed to surrender her license.

Although we’ve made a lot of progress since 1963, fair housing enforcement and education are still needed. The forms of discrimination that persist today are very difficult for victims to detect. So enforcement strategies can’t rely on individual complaints of suspected discrimination.

And fair housing enforcement alone can’t reverse the persistent patterns of segregation that past discrimination helped create. The evidence argues for multipronged strategies that include vigorous enforcement of anti-discrimination protections along with:

  • education—about the availability and desirability of diverse neighborhoods;
  • local regulatory reforms and affordable housing development—to open up exclusive communities and preserve affordable options in gentrifying neighborhoods;
  • neighborhood reinvestment—to equalize the quality of services, resources, and amenities in minority neighborhoods; and
  • new incentives—to encourage and nurture stable diversity.

All these elements are required to achieve the calls for free and fair housing choice still echoing from the 1963 March on Washington.

Crowds are shown in front of the Washington Monument during the March on Washington for civil rights, August 28, 1963.  Photo by AP 

Research Areas Race and equity Housing
Tags Federal housing programs and policies Racial and ethnic disparities Housing markets Federal urban policies Civil rights laws and regulations Homeownership Housing affordability Wealth inequality Opportunity and ownership Racial barriers to housing Racial homeownership gap Fair housing and housing discrimination Structural racism
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center