The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
April 3, 2018

Recommitting to the promise of the Fair Housing Act 50 years later

April 3, 2018

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. Other posts in this series: 


Until 1968, landlords could legally refuse to rent to African Americans and other people of color, and homeowners and real estate agents could refuse to show or sell them homes. Banks could deny mortgage loans based on a homebuyer’s race or a neighborhood’s racial mix. And white communities could pass zoning and land-use restrictions designed to keep people of color out

The federal Fair Housing Act declared these practices illegal, protecting people from discrimination when they are renting or buying a home or applying for a mortgage loan. When it was first passed, the act outlawed housing discrimination based on race, color, country of origin, gender, and religion. Since then, its protections have been extended to include disability status and family composition.

We’ve made important progress since 1968, but we can’t claim to have vanquished housing discrimination or reversed its pernicious effects. Although the most blatant forms of “door slamming” housing discrimination have declined dramatically, people of color looking for places to live are still told about fewer homes and apartments than comparable white people.

The lingering cost of segregation and discrimination

We still live in starkly segregated neighborhoods. A typical white person lives in a neighborhood that is 75 percent white and 8 percent African American, while a typical African American person lives in a neighborhood that is only 35 percent white and 45 percent African American.

And racial segregation has deprived the neighborhoods occupied by people of color of essential public services and private investments. Today, even middle-class black and Latino neighborhoods have lower house price appreciation, fewer neighborhood amenities, lower-performing schools, and higher crime than white neighborhoods with comparable income levels.

The segregation of neighborhoods along racial lines led directly to the geographic concentration of poverty and the severe distress of very high–poverty neighborhoods. Today, a low-income African American person is over three times more likely to live in a neighborhood with very high poverty than a white person is, and a low-income Latino person is more than twice as likely.

Housing discrimination and segregation fuel continued inequality and injustice because neighborhoods shape the well-being of children and families. All parents want their children to grow up in a safe neighborhood, with great schools, a healthy environment, and good role models. But in neighborhoods with high levels of crime and violence, failing schools and other public services, and few places to work, shop, or play, families face challenges finding work, earning a decent living, and raising their children.

And the consequences hurt all of us. Decades of rigorous research have documented the high costs of racial and ethnic segregation—not just for individuals but for the regions in which they live and for our society as a whole.

We need vigorous fair housing enforcement

Despite compelling evidence that housing discrimination persists and undermines our well-being as a nation, recent news from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development raises questions about whether the federal government will prioritize fair housing.

On the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, we should recommit to the promise of free and fair housing choice, dismantling the legacy of housing discrimination and segregation, so every family can live in a neighborhood of choice—a neighborhood that supports its well-being and its children’s future. 

Vigorous fair housing enforcement plays a critical role in tackling that challenge, not only for people of color, but for other groups facing barriers to housing choice, including some who are not yet covered by the protections of the federal Fair Housing Act.

Representatives of the Wisconsin chapter of the Congress for Racial Equality marched in Madison, Wisconsin on Dec. 10, 1963. Photo by anonymous/AP.

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