Fair housing is a civil right protected by the Fair Housing Act (FHA). And yet, housing discrimination and segregation still persist, causing long-term societal effects in America. Segregation and discrimination in housing harm people’s health, their ability to accumulate wealth and the environment.
In 1967, eight days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Congress passed FHA, which was the final piece of the civil rights legislation passed in the 1960s. FHA prohibits discrimination based upon race, color, national origin, religion, gender, disability or familial status in the housing arena. The housing arena includes: renting a house, buying a house (sales), getting a mortgage (lending), appraisals and homeowner’s insurance.
FHA was also a key piece of legislation meant to undo decades of systemic racism in the housing arena known today as redlining. Redlining, the intentional decision not to provide mortgage loans in minority communities, specifically African American communities, led to the formation and enhancement of segregated neighborhoods. Many of the neighborhoods redlined back in the 1920s-1940s are still segregated today. Living in a segregated neighborhood has a significant effect on a person’s health outcomes. A recent NCRC report found that “the COVID-19 case rate in the five most segregated neighborhoods [in Philadelphia] was twice that of the COVID-19 case rate in the five least segregated neighborhoods.”
The poor implementation of affirmatively furthering fair housing (AFFH) has also taken a significant toll on the health of African Americans. The AFFH rule is designed so that everyone, no matter their race, can live in a non-segregated neighborhood. The lack of use of this provision and the decimation of using a rule to enforce fair housing throughout the country have contributed to African Americans not having equal access to adequate schools, food and health care.
A report from Brookings Institute found, “African Americans are disproportionately treated at health care facilities with the fewest technological resources, the most poorly trained professionals and least experienced clinicians serve predominantly black patient populations.” Public health reports show that racial residential segregation is a fundamental cause of health care disparities between Whites and Blacks. Socioeconomic status differences between races include employment and education, both of which affect health and a person’s ability to build wealth.
For most people, the equity that a house generates is their only wealth-building tool to be used to fund old age and/or as an inheritance for their children. However, the opportunity to utilize this wealth-building tool is not available to Black homeowners in the same way as it is to White homeowners. Homes in Black neighborhoods do not appraise for the same amount as similar homes in White neighborhoods, and by not appraising for the same amount, Black homeowners miss out on this additional wealth. This loss of wealth continues to perpetuate the racial wealth divide.
Most people don’t initially connect housing discrimination with environmental impacts as they view discriminatory impacts to only affect an individual’s housing choice. For the past five years, NCRC has worked on a housing and chemical spill case that has discriminatory effects on both people’s health and the environment. The community of Eight Mile, Alabama, has been affected by a spill of mercaptan (the chemical placed in gas to give the “rotten egg” smell in case of a leak) by the gas utility company in the area. The spill occurred in 2008, and yet, the gas company did not inform the community about it until 2010. The only reason the information came out was that the residents began smelling a foul odor and began suffering headaches, rashes and difficulty breathing. Despite the gas company providing full remediation to a similar spill in an affluent, predominantly White neighborhood in California, it has yet to remediate the spill fully or compensate the predominantly African American residents of Eight Mile adequately for their suffering.
The purpose of the Fair Housing Act is to stop the perpetuation of segregation by stopping discrimination. It is up to all of us to ensure that ALL people who engage with the housing arena can access housing on fair and equitable terms.
Anneliese Lederer is NCRC’s Director of Fair Lending and Consumer Protection.
Tracy McCracken is NCRC’s Director of Fair Housing.