In the first decades of the 20th century, the Great Migration of African Americans north from the rural South transformed the racial landscape of the United States. As more and more African Americans settled in Northern urban centers, whites imposed increasingly harsh methods of maintaining racial segregation. Discrimination in real estate, mortgage lending, and government housing policies led to the creation of black ghettos.
Decades before the passage of the Fair Housing Act, African Americans in Congress understood the necessity of supporting federal civil rights legislation to address residential segregation. During the 1940s and 1950s, widespread unemployment, inadequate housing options, poverty, crime, and over-crowding in urban African-American neighborhoods contributed to a growing number of demonstrations and violence over housing issues. Local attempts to address these were often unsuccessful. It became clear to African Americans in Congress that federal legislation was needed to counteract the detrimental effects of decades of housing discrimination.
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, African-American members called for such legislation. Representative Adam Clayton Powell (NY), for example, supported an amendment to the Housing Act of 1949 to prohibit discrimination in any public housing developed by the federal government. This and other legislative efforts to end federal government support of segregated housing failed, however, as opponents asserted racially segregated neighborhoods were necessary to maintaining racial harmony.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 represented the first successful legislative attempt to take on housing discrimination. All five African-American members in the House of Representatives at the time voted to pass the bill. Among other things, the sweeping civil rights law prohibited housing discrimination in any program receiving federal assistance. The Act failed to address discrimination in the sale or rental of privately-owned housing. Moreover, the federal government rarely enforced the housing provision that passed as part of the Act.
At President Lyndon B. Johnson’s urging, Congress debated legislation to combat discrimination in the private housing market in 1966 and 1967. African-American members supported these attempts to pass fair housing law and spoke out in Congress to emphasize the need to address housing discrimination.
During consideration of fair housing legislation in 1966, Representative John Conyers (MI-13) introduced an amendment to create a Fair Housing Board to enforce the bill’s anti-discrimination provisions. It was the only strengthening amendment accepted as part of the 1966 House bill before it died in the Senate. Fair housing supporters in Congress also failed to create a strong enough majority to pass fair housing legislation in 1967.
Later that same year, Rep. Conyers again tackled housing discrimination. He introduced the Full Opportunity Act to address problems faced by African Americans in the areas of jobs, housing, and education. Title VI of the bill included fair housing provisions. Though this legislation also failed passage, Rep. Conyers’ proposal helped keep housing disparities in the forefront of Congressional consideration. “We can never say that people are free unless they are free to choose a place to live because they like the place and can afford it,” Conyers told his colleagues when introducing the bill (113 Congressional Record p. 36615, December 14, 1967).
The next year, Republican Senator Edward Brooke (MA), then the only African American in the Senate, joined with white, Democratic Senator Walter Mondale (MN) to coauthor the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The two men introduced the Act as amendment to the larger Civil Rights Act of 1968 then under debate in the Senate. Opponents of the legislation blocked it with a filibuster.
To move the Fair Housing Act through the Senate, Sens. Brooke and Mondale agreed to several compromises. The original bill empowered the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to investigate discrimination complaints, hold hearings, and issue enforcement orders. The bill that passed the Senate, however, stripped HUD of most of these powers. It also exempted several types of housing transactions from the prohibition against discrimination including the sale or rental of a single-family house by the owner as long as the owner did not receive assistance from a housing agent. Another heavily debated compromise, called the “Mrs. Murphy” exemption, exempted buildings with four or fewer units from coverage under the Fair Housing Act as long as the owner of the building occupied one of the units and did not use the services of a real estate agent when looking for tenants. Other significant legislative compromises impacted the bill’s enforcement provisions.
Fair housing supporters in the Senate expected the conservative House to demand additional compromises. However, the House approved the Senate version of the bill just days after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination and sent it to the White House for approval.
President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, including Title VIII or Fair Housing Act, into law on April 11, 1968. The new law prohibited discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin in approximately 80 percent of the nation’s housing. It also charged the secretary of HUD to enforce the act and affirmatively promote the goal of fair housing, but provided the agency with few powers to accomplish the task. Under the Act, HUD could accept discrimination complaints, but was limited to seeking resolution through conciliation. This meant that the agency could only ask parties in fair housing disputes to work out their differences with the help of HUD representatives. The agency could not file lawsuits. Instead, it was required to refer suspected cases of discrimination to the Justice Department for a decision on whether to take legal action. If both efforts failed, the complainant had a limited window of time to file a private lawsuit, an option which could prove costly and time consuming.
In the years that followed, it became clear that the Fair Housing Act lacked strength to combat the nation’s legacy of housing discrimination. The newly formed Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) consistently included fair housing and lending issues in its list of legislative priorities in the 1970s and 1980s. Efforts to strengthen the Act focused on two main goals: expanding the list of groups protected from discrimination and increasing enforcement mechanisms.
Between 1970 and 1974, CBC members, including Representatives Ronald Dellums (CA), Yvonne Burke (CA), Ralph Metcalfe (IL), Charles Rangel (NY-13), Robert Nix (PA), submitted or supported numerous pieces of legislation to prohibit discrimination in housing and mortgage lending based on sex or marital status. Sen. Brooke cosponsored similar legislation in the Senate. These efforts met with partial success when Congress added sex to the list of classes protected under federal fair housing law through an amendment to the massive Housing and Community Development Act of 1974. The CBC supported the bill and it passed with little debate in Congress.
During the early 1970s, African-American members of Congress also supported legislative attempts to combat redlining by requiring mortgage lending companies to disclose the amount and location of housing loans issued each year. Representative Parren Mitchell (MD) and Delegate Walter Fauntroy (DC), both members of the House Banking, Currency, and Housing Committee, jointly introduced one such bill. Sen. Brooke cosponsored the Senate version of the bill which was signed into law as the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act of 1975.
Congress regularly considered amendments to the Fair Housing Act beginning in 1977. Over the next decade, CBC members continued fighting to pass amendments that, in Representative Shirley Chisholm’s (NY) words, would transform the Fair Housing Act from “a statement of goals” into “an active force against discrimination” (125 Congressional Record p. 17341, June 29, 1979). In 1979, under the leadership of CBC chair Representative Cardiss Collins (IL), the Caucus rallied in support of the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1979 which, among other provisions, granted HUD the ability to hear and decide individual cases of discrimination through the use of administrative law judges. All CBC members signed on as cosponsors of the bill. Rep. Collins informed Congress that granting the ability to make rulings through administrative law judges constituted one of the Caucus’ major legislative priorities for the session. While the House succeeded in passing a revised version of the amendments, the bill died in the Senate.
Though CBC members cosponsored the reintroduction of strengthening amendments several times between 1983 and 1986, fair housing legislation failed to make it out of committee during these years. Enforcement remained a contentious issue. Then in 1988, legislators, including Rep. Conyers, reached a compromise to be offered as part of a House Judiciary Committee bill. The bill permitted an aggrieved person to choose to have their housing discrimination complaint decided by either a HUD administrative law judge or in Federal district court. It also added people with disabilities and families with children (familial status) to the list of groups protected from housing discrimination by federal law. Twenty-two CBC members cosponsored the bill. After brief debate, the bill passed both the House and the Senate. President Ronald Reagan signed the Fair Housing Amendments Act into law on September 13, 1988, finally giving some teeth to enforcement a full 20 years after passage of the original Fair Housing Act.
In the years since 1988, the Fair Housing Act has not been amended significantly. CBC members continued to introduce and support legislation to expand fair housing law provisions and strengthen enforcement, however. Between 1993 and 2005, Representative Edolphus Towns (NY) proposed amendments during each Congressional session to prohibit discrimination in housing on the basis of affectional or sexual orientation. In 2003, Representative Charles Rangel (NY-13) introduced legislation to prohibit discrimination in the rental of housing to members of the Armed Forces. Additionally, Rep. Towns and other CBC members including Representatives John Conyers (MI-13), Al Green (TX-09), Alcee Hastings (FL-20), and Robert “Bobby” Scott (IL-03) supported the Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME) Act in 2010 and 2011 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, source of income, or marital status in housing and brokerage services.
The Caucus also continued defending stronger fair housing enforcement through its support of the Fair Housing Initiatives Program (FHIP). CBC members overwhelmingly voted to authorize the FHIP program through passage of the Housing and Community Development Act of 1987 and later to make the program permanent through the Housing and Community Development Act of 1992. The program strengthened HUD’s ability to enforce fair housing law by authorizing the Department to provide funding to state and local government agencies as well as non-profit groups which work to prevent or eliminate discriminatory housing practices. These groups assist HUD in enforcement by educating home seekers about their housing rights, helping people file complaints, and by using methods such as paired testing to detect discriminatory treatment by landlords and lenders. Many of the most blatant forms of housing discrimination have declined since the establishment of this program.
Since the creation of FHIP, several CBC members have worked to secure funding both for the program and other fair housing enforcement efforts by amending appropriations bills or introducing additional legislation. In 2005, for example, Rep. Barbara Lee (CA-13) responded to reports that many African Americans displaced by Hurricane Katrina faced discrimination in their search for replacement housing by authoring an amendment to the Louisiana Recovery Corporation Act. The amendment provided for increased funding and resources for HUD’s Office of Fair Housing to enforce non-discrimination and fair housing practices in the Gulf Region. That same year, Reps. Lee, Hastings, and Green fought back against efforts by the George W. Bush Administration and House Republicans to cut funding for fair housing programs. The House approved an amendment authored by the three CBC members which restored full funding to HUD’s fair housing programs for the 2006 fiscal year. More recently, Rep. Green introduced the Veterans, Women, Families with Children, and Persons with Disabilities Housing Fairness Act, or Housing Fairness Act, to authorize funds for FHIP and for the creation of a nationwide testing program to detect and document differences in the treatment of persons seeking housing. Rep. Green first introduced the bill in 2005 and reintroduced similar legislation each Congress through 2013.
In recent years, however, new and more subtle forms of discrimination have evolved. Predatory lending, or the making of loans not in the borrower’s best interest, is one of the most devastating of these new forms. Predatory lenders often target minority individuals or neighborhoods. In response to this crisis, the Caucus helped lead the fight for fair and transparent lending practices. CBC members represent some of the districts hardest hit by predatory lending during the early 2000s. Many of their districts also suffered from high foreclosure rates following the initial crisis in the housing market. CBC legislative and advocacy efforts continue today as the nation moves towards recovery. For more on predatory lending see the Spotlight Section