New Yorker, April 11, 2018: The unfulfilled promise of the Fair Housing Act
The Fair Housing Act was meant to do two things: outlaw individual acts of housing discrimination and foster integration. It was the first time that Congress declared it illegal for private individuals to discriminate on the basis of race in the sale or rental of housing. This was no small thing. Before 1968, it was assumed to be perfectly legal for owners to refuse to sell homes to black families, or for a private bank to deny a potential black homebuyer a loan, or for a broker to lie and say that no homes were available.
The law successfully made these individual acts of explicit racial discrimination in housing transactions illegal, and residential segregation by race has since declined. But the segregation that we continue to see today didn’t happen by accident. It was the result of official policy. Federal appraisal maps used racial classifications. The F.H.A. refused to guarantee black buyers’ mortgages. Public housing—which depended on federal funds—was explicitly segregated by race. The F.H.A. supported the use of racially restrictive covenants, which barred the sale of private homes to buyers of color. The Fair Housing Act has never fully delivered on its promise to promote and further integration.