The members of the Congressional Black Caucus, in their continued role as the “Conscience of the Congress,” see addressing inequality and injustice as a central responsibility of their Congressional service. Many Caucus members cut their teeth on housing issues as elected officials, civil servants, or housing advocates in their home districts before coming to Congress. These experiences left them with an intimate understanding of the importance of affecting policy and public opinion outside of Congress in addition to aggressively pursuing fair housing and fair lending legislation. As a group and as individuals, CBC members have worked to both prompt and protest White House action on fair housing issues, bring national attention to housing discrimination, direct consideration in key Congressional committees, and advance the nation towards the goal of equal housing in a myriad of other ways.
Soon after its founding, the CBC began advocating for the executive branch to take meaningful action to address housing discrimination. In 1971, for example, the newly-formed CBC met with President Richard Nixon to present 60 policy recommendations. Among the recommendations was the need to secure equal access for minorities to the total housing market and to ensure that sites selected for federal installations were located in communities with housing open to all economic and racial groups. Finding President Nixon’s response less than satisfactory, the CBC held a series of public forums to discuss the importance of their recommendations to the African-American community and the nation at large.
During the Carter and Reagan Administrations, the CBC advocated for the White House to include stronger fair housing enforcement as part of the nation’s urban policy. During a 1980 visit of CBC members to the White House, then CBC chair Representative Cardiss Collins (IL) appealed to President Jimmy Carter for assistance convincing Congress to pass the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1980. Later, when President Ronald Reagan introduced his own fair housing amendments to Congress in 1983, the CBC pushed back. President Reagan’s amendments proposed the Justice Department handle fair housing complaints instead of deciding them through HUD administrative law judges as fair housing supporters desired. “[T]he president has addressed the right problem with the wrong solution,” CBC chair Representative Julian Dixon (CA) commented on behalf of the CBC to the press “his insistence on judicial relief in an already overburdened court system is an unrealistic and unworkable approach that will impede efforts to eliminate housing discrimination in this country” (“Caucus Calls Reagan’s Fair Housing Plan a Smokescreen, “The Afro American, July 30, 1983, p. 3). The president’s amendments did not pass Congress. Rep. Dixon went on to pledge that the CBC would continue supporting meaningful efforts to amend the Fair Housing Act and to fight against the president’s “narrow civil rights philosophy.”
The commemoration of the Fair Housing Act represents another important way African-American members advocate for continued vigilance against discrimination in the housing market. In 1976, Senator Edward Brooke (MA), one of the original authors of the Fair Housing Act, submitted the first Senate resolution to officially recognize April as Fair Housing Month. Representative Parren Mitchell (MD) took up the task in the House the following year. Since that time African-American members of Congress have commemorated most Aprils as Fair Housing Month either through cosponsoring legislation, making statements from the floor, or participating in commemorative events in Washington, D.C. and throughout their home districts. Their involvement in Fair Housing Month helps provide a platform to highlight the work of national, state, and local fair housing organizations and call for continuing vigilance against discrimination in the housing market.
Many members of the CBC have advocated against discrimination in housing and lending through service on Congressional committees. Since its founding, the Caucus has worked to place members on committees which oversee issues of importance to minority communities and help CBC members rise to leadership roles on these committees. CBC members’ presence on committees with oversight on housing issues has been especially strong. In the 113th Congress, for example, 11 CBC members served on the House Financial Services Committee, three on Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and eight on the Judiciary Committee. As a long-time member of the House Judiciary Committee (1965 to the present), Representative John Conyers (MI-13) participated in nearly all the committee’s hearings related to the passage and amendment of fair housing and lending law. CBC members on the Financial Services Committee were powerful advocates for minorities during the recent housing crisis. In 2009, CBC members on the committee engaged in discussions with Congressional leaders and Obama Administration officials to focus attention on economic challenges impacting African-American communities. Later that year, the 10 CBC members of the Financial Services Committee walked out of a key committee vote to draw attention to the failure of the government bailout to provide relief for minorities. They expressed concern that while minority and lower-income communities bore the disproportionate brunt of the financial crash, very little attention or bailout money had been directed to help lenders serving these communities.
Letter writing also plays an important role in the CBC’s advocacy for fair housing and lending enforcement. In 2006, for example, Rep. Barbara Lee (CA-13) and 51 other members of Congress, including the majority of CBC members, sent a letter to key members of the House Appropriations Committee to increase funding for the Fair Housing Initiatives Program (FHIP) and other programs facilitating the enforcement of housing discrimination complaints. Rep. Al Green (TX-09) led a similar effort in 2013 and released a letter with 63 cosigners to the Appropriations Committee supporting $44.1 million funding for FHIP as part of the federal government’s 2014 budget. More recently in 2014, Representative Keith Ellison (MN-05) brought together 21 Caucus members and 24 other members of Congress to send a letter to Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Shaun Donovan supporting swift enactment of the agency’s proposed Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule. As proposed, the rule would require areas receiving federal housing and community development funds to expand housing options in opportunity-rich communities, reduce segregation and concentrated poverty, and invest in high-poverty communities in order to expand opportunities for existing residents.
While the CBC’s advocacy efforts have taken different forms, their commitment to housing and lending equality remains unwavering. Members continue to advocate for the nation’s residents to receive equal and fair treatment in the search and financing of housing.