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50 years after FHA, housing equality still a struggle, study shows

16th April 2018   ·   0 Comments

By Meghan Holmes
Contributing Writer

In the summer of 1966, Martin Luther King, Jr. moved to Chicago and rented an apartment on that west side, spending months organizing and marching with other civil rights leaders for more open and affordable housing across the city.

Chicago, like most cities in America, was highly segregated, with many African Americans living in substandard conditions, isolated from economic opportunity. Following tense demonstrations, during which white citizens reacted violently against peaceful protestors, the city’s mayor signed an agreement promising to create a more open housing market.

“Now is the time to get rid of the slums and ghettos of Chicago. Now is the time to make justice a reality all over this nation,” he said in a speech that year.

Two years later, King was assassinated in Memphis, TN and lawmakers passed the Fair Housing Act a week later. The bill enshrined many of King’s (and other civil rights pioneers’) positions on access to housing, prohibiting discrimination concerning the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin and sex.

When the law was passed, New Orleans was also highly segregated. Nearly a century of policies restricting where African Americans lived led to two-thirds of the city’s neighborhood blocks being segregated in 1950, with less than one percent of either white or Black households.

In a report released this month called “Rigging the Real Estate Market: Segregation, Inequality, and Disaster Risk,” The Data Center, a nonprofit based in southeast Louisiana, details the policies that prevented African Americans from living in many neighborhoods prior to the passage of the FHA.

In the early 1900s, zoning ordinances established white-only neighborhoods across the city.

“As segregated Black neighborhoods, geographically confined as they were, became increasingly overcrowded and associated with the undesirable and hazardous land uses permitted around them, and as white neighborhoods became increasingly identified as the most desirable locations for all manner of investment, the scaffolding necessary to support neighborhood redlining was erected,” the report says.

In addition to redlining (preventing someone from getting a loan because they live in a neighborhood deemed a financial risk), white neighborhoods enforced housing covenants in which residents could sue one another for damages or be evicted for renting or selling to African Americans. The supreme court ruled that racially restrictive covenants violated the Fourteenth Amendment in the late 1940s, but they continued to be written into title documents until the passage of the Fair Housing Act. After that, they remained visible in title searches.

“The covenants continued to send a signal to buyers about the racial preference of their neighbors,” the report says, pointing to a restrictive covenant established in 1913 and still visible in 1979 record books in Lakeview, which is still predominantly white today.

“One of the major impacts of the passage of the FHA is that African Americans gained access to home ownership,” said Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center. “But we also have to remember that these barriers to access were only stripped away in theory. When we look at the numbers, many of the gains have been depressingly small, with white Americans still having much higher rates of home ownership than Black Americans.”

Nonprofits like the GNOFHAC receive funding from HUD to help enforce fair housing policies across the city. They sometimes do this using testers, sent in to meet with potential landlords or real estate agents to assess how equitable treatment is depending on someone’s race or gender.

A 2017 study the group released found that 44 percent of the time the Black tester was denied the opportunity to rent or was “treated unfairly,” including failing to show for appointments, ignoring follow-up inquiries or failing to mention benefits offered to the white testers.

“In 2018, we have to remember that housing discrimination isn’t blatant,” Hill said. “So, while the FHA made it illegal to codify discrimination in housing, we will still see violations of the law every day. If a maintenance worker sexually harasses a tenant at an apartment complex, that’s a violation of the FHA.”

In the decades since the bill’s passage, New Orleans has remained highly segregated.

The Civil Rights Act required the desegregation of the city’s housing projects, and they quickly became almost exclusively Black as white residents moved, often to neighboring St. Bernard and Jefferson parishes. Black and white New Orleanians moved to different neighborhoods, but continued to largely live apart.

Fair-housing advocates want the implementation of Obama-era changes to the FHA mandating record keeping on the part of cities, demonstrating their efforts at reducing housing discrimination. The Trump Administration has delayed the implementation of these efforts — known as “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Data” collection, until 2020.

“There’s a lot of work that remains to be done,” Hill said. “In 50 years of the FHA, we have seen some nominal gains, but we have a long way to go.”

This article originally published in the April 16, 2018 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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