The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
May 2, 2018

How the Fair Housing Act’s role in combating discrimination will continue to evolve

Urban Institute researchers writing on Urban Wire are reflecting on the 50 years since the Fair Housing Act became law, and the steps needed to continue building inclusive, prosperous communities.


The 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act provides an opportunity to reflect on its history and to examine the evolving role it plays in combating discrimination when people are buying or renting a home.

Enacted in 1968, the Fair Housing Act (or Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964) prohibited discrimination in the rental, sale, or financing of housing based on race, color, religion, or national origin. Congress passed the law in response to ongoing housing discrimination against African Americans and other racial, ethnic, and religious minorities.

Efforts to pass the law stemmed from the barriers that black and Hispanic veterans of the Vietnam War faced when trying to access housing, as well as from lobbying by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and other entities. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. spurred President Johnson to pressure Congress to pass the bill.

A history of change

The Fair Housing Act has been amended twice since it was passed to expand legal protections and enforcement authority. In 1974, it was amended to protect against discrimination based on sex. Disability and family status were added in 1988, and the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s enforcement role was expanded. There have been efforts to amend the law to include sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender presentation in recent decades (such as the Equality Act introduced in 2015), but no amendment has passed.

Since then, the law has been interpreted to cover groups not explicitly named. In 2017, a US district court ruled that a Colorado landlord’s refusal to rent a townhouse to a lesbian couple, one of whom is transgender, violated the law. The ruling was the first in which a court extended protections under the law on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.  

An evolving view of protected classes

Although recipients of housing choice vouchers and other public benefits are not a federally protected class, housing advocates have pursued disparate impact claims under the Fair Housing Act. They have argued that although landlord practices may seem neutral, these practices can adversely affect a protected group, like families with children, who compose a disproportionate share of voucher holders. In 2015, the Supreme Court upheld disparate impact as a key tool in combating housing discrimination.

Given the patchwork of state and local source of income laws intended to protect recipients of public benefits from discrimination, advocates have argued that the Fair Housing Act should be amended to provide federal protections and guarantee that residents have access to opportunity areas, further bolstering the law’s goal of dismantling segregated communities. 

A recent lawsuit filed against Facebook by fair housing organizations is one example of how forms of discrimination continue to evolve. The lawsuit alleges that the social media giant discriminates against certain groups, including single mothers. Advertisers are allowed to target housing rental and other ads to Facebook users they want to attract based on demographic characteristics, likes, and interests, thereby limiting the information other home seekers receive about housing options. 

Informing future efforts to combat discrimination

Although the Fair Housing Act has made headway against discrimination in housing, there is still work to do. Urban Institute research has shown evidence of discrimination and has documented the forms discrimination can take in rental and sales markets. Our studies have looked at housing discrimination based on race and ethnicity, disability, family status, sexual orientation, and gender status.

These studies have found that although door slamming may be less common than in the past, discriminatory practices that persist are harder to detect. The Fair Housing Act will continue to evolve as the US addresses new and ongoing housing challenges, and evidence can help inform how changes to the law help its mission to combat discrimination.

Photo by Blend Images/Getty Images.

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