Camille Z. Charles on the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act

Where you are born and raised can have a profound impact on where you end up in life. During the civil rights era, advocates for racial equality argued that desegregating neighborhoods could hold the key to securing equal opportunities for Black Americans. Practices like restrictive covenants and redlining kept Blacks out of white neighborhoods, concentrating them in areas that became marked by poverty, crime, and joblessness.

In February of 1968 a report by the Kerner Commission warned that the country was on the verge of forming “two societies, one Black, one white—separate and unequal.” The now-famous report, commissioned by President Lyndon B. Johnson in response to the era’s urban riots, highlighted the role that residential segregation played in the creation of the country’s racial crisis. The time seemed ripe for Congress to act. Passed just days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the Fair Housing Act (FHA), in its original form, prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, and national origin in the sale, rental, and financing of housing. Later additions to the FHA extended these protections to individuals based on sex, familial status, and disability.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of this landmark piece of legislation, so we sat down with Camille Z. Charles, the Walter H. and Leonore C. Annenberg Professor in the Social Sciences and director of the Center for Africana Studies, to learn more about how the FHA has shaped America’s neighborhoods over the past half century. Charles has written extensively on residential segregation, including “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?: Race, Class and Residence in Los Angeles.”

Camille Z. Charles, Walter H. and Leonore C. Annenberg Professor in the Social Sciences, professor of sociology, Africana studies, and education, and director of the Center for Africana Studies.

 

Why is the FHA so important in addressing racial inequality?

Getting the FHA passed was an important aspect of moving forward in terms of racial equality. We needed voting rights, we needed employment rights, but it was really important to have the end of housing market discrimination.  We needed fair housing legislation so that Blacks could live wherever they could afford to live and would have access to the “American dream” in the fullest sense.

Our homes are typically the biggest source of wealth for the average American. Opening up possibilities for homeownership for Black Americans is important on a lot of fronts because then these families can begin to accumulate wealth. Plus, having Black and white neighbors living next door to one another can also start to break down prejudice and stereotypes. With more integrated communities, Blacks can have improved access to important social networks which, in turn, can improve their access to jobs. The accumulation of this kind of financial, social and cultural capital that are all essential for upward mobility and the achievement of the “American dream,” they all come from opening up access to home ownership. These are also outcomes that can move our country towards being that more perfect union that we are supposed to be about. So fair housing legislation and access is critically important. 

Has the FHA been successful? Has it been able to do what civil rights advocates hoped?

Unfortunately, in order to get it through Congress back in 1968 it was watered down to the point that there was never really any enforcement mechanism. As a result, 50 years later we know there is still actually fairly regular discrimination in the sale and rental of housing in the U.S. It looks different now. People used to be able to put signs out that said “no coloreds allowed.” You could write restrictive covenants into deeds. In fact, the federal government wouldn’t make loans to certain kinds of people. With the passage of the FHA, overtly racist practices like restrictive covenants and redlining became patently illegal.

Today, however, we know that Black and white home seekers who say that they want to live in a diverse neighborhood will get steered by real estate agents in different directions. Whites will get steered towards predominantly white neighborhoods, Blacks will get steered towards integrating or predominantly Black neighborhoods. There’s still some evidence suggesting that minority home seekers have to make more phone calls and work harder to get access to realtors to even get shown homes. Once they get that realtor to call them back, then they don’t get shown the same number of homes as their white peers. Minority home seekers are still far more likely to be maneuvered into sub-prime mortgages even when they would easily qualify for conventional mortgages. This means they’re more likely to end up in mortgages with less favorable terms and vulnerable to foreclosure, as we saw during the 2008 financial crisis.

I would say, yes, we’ve made a lot of progress here, but not nearly the progress we could have made if Congress had provided for an enforcement mechanism that could have helped with monitoring and delivering consequences. 

What have been the costs of persisting residential segregation?

I think that one of the things we know is that when you can actually create stable integrated environments, people learn that the world doesn’t come to an end. When people live amongst people who are different from them it does actually change attitudes for the better. So, I think if the FHA had been allowed to have more teeth that we would be further along in the process of becoming a more open, tolerant, integrated, and diverse country. If we had gotten it right back in 1968, I think that the wealth disparity today wouldn’t be what it is, I think that the educational disparities wouldn’t be what they are, labor market disparity—basically all of those things begin with where we live. Had we gotten that right 50 years ago, I think we would be in a fundamentally different place in this moment.

Are there any notable examples where diverse and integrated communities have succeeded?

People in Philadelphia love to point to West Mount Airy, which, on one level is actually a success. It has been roughly 50/50 in terms of Black and white residents since pre-FHA. It’s one of the best neighborhoods in the city, and it’s one of the most sought-after neighborhoods in the city. The flip side to that is that within the actual neighborhood boundaries it’s actually quite segregated. African Americans are concentrated closer to Germantown Ave in smaller homes on smaller lots; as you move toward the other side of the neighborhood, known for larger, single-family detached houses on quarter-acre lots, it becomes much whiter. This pattern is at least partially a consequence of racial disparities in wealth and income that, over time, have meant that affluent Blacks can get into this great neighborhood, but it remains difficult for them to get into that part of the neighborhood that is more expensive. This should not, however, take away from the achievement of stable integration.

Do you think there are any ways to move forward on this issue?

One of the problems that leads to failures in residential desegregation can be seen in a lot of urban renewal projects. We fall short on the affordable housing piece. A big reason for this is because there aren’t really any laws or guidelines that make the inclusion of affordable housing an actual requirement in these projects. I mean, yes, we say you should “affirmatively further fair housing,” but there are loopholes that are consistently taken advantage of.

I think, too, that we have to be more mindful about the fact that people lived here before, and some of them still live here, and they want to live here because it’s where they’ve always lived. And how can we do that better? I think that when we go in with these grand plans for revitalizing neighborhoods we don’t necessarily think as deeply as we could or should about what it really means on an individual level. We very easily end up making people feel unwanted and excluded from their own space, whether it’s a public space like parks, or their own front stoops. If we’re not careful about how redevelopment impacts zoning and taxes, too, then people who’ve owned their homes may no longer be able to afford their property taxes or upkeep. I think if we want to do these things right, we have to get that piece of it right, and right now there is nothing in the law that forces us to do that—or even appropriately incentivizes us for doing it.

This story is by Jessica Martucci, and originally appeared in Omnia magazine.