The Fair Housing Act was signed as part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, in a room where President Lyndon B. Johnson was one of the few white faces. Seen in many ways as a culmination of the activism of the time, the Fair Housing Act protects people against discrimination in the sale, rent, or financing of housing. Fifty years after its passage, more than 10,000 complaints are still filed annually through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) or the Fair Housing Assistance Program.
To address the continuing importance of the Fair Housing Act, Provost Wendell Pritchett, along with Vincent Reina and Susan Wachter, co-edited a new volume, “Perspectives on Fair Housing,” part of the Penn Press series, “City in the Twenty-First Century.” Penn professors Francesca Ammon, Camille Charles, Amy Hillier, Rand Quinn, and Akira Rodríguez also co-wrote chapters.
“The Fair Housing Act, the last of the major Civil Rights bills of the 1960s to gain passage, implicates every facet of our society,” says Pritchett, whose academic work in urban history focuses on housing, race relations, and economic development. “Where you live affects your health, education, and job prospects and, sadly for those who live in poverty, greatly influences your future opportunities. Understanding how the Act was developed and has evolved since passage is critical to creating a more just and equitable society. At this time of renewed urgency for social justice, such analysis is more vital than ever.
“I am proud to have partnered with my colleagues Vincent Reina and Susan Wachter to develop this exciting group of essays, which showcase, among many other strengths, the wide range of scholarship at Penn, as well as our shared commitment to research that helps to explain and address the most critical challenges of our time.”
“Perspectives in Fair Housing” grew out of a 2018 Penn Institute for Urban Research symposium that gathered leading scholars and experts from public and private sectors to present research. The group is continuing to lead focused conversations on furthering housing equality through a six-part lecture series, every Tuesday and Thursday at 5 p.m. The event series began on October 13, with Pritchett, Reina, and Ammon discussing the history of the Fair Housing Act and its implications today.
A historical approach: ‘The stories repeat’
Pritchett and Francesca Ammon of the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design take a historical approach to the first chapter of the book. They combine Ammon’s broad approach to the history of urban planning, which formalized as a profession in 1909, with Pritchett’s deep knowledge of the “play-by-play negotiations and activism” that led to the Act’s passage, Ammon says.
Planning is the marriage of public and private action, “this balance of top-down expertise and bottom-up local knowledge,” Ammon says. “Part of why housing has been such an intractable problem is because there are so many different forces at work that have been encouraging or enabling segregation and discrimination.”
The interplay between the federal and local has created a host of varying forces—including policies at different levels, informal practices, and private agreements—that combine to entrench communities in static inequality. “There are so many levers supporting this that need to be addressed,” she says. “It’s unreasonable to think that the Fair Housing Act would fix all of those things you have to undo in the larger culture, but it’s an important first step in trying to make progress.”
In the 1930s, housing activists had to convince the real estate industry to allow the federal government to play in the industry’s arena, Ammon says. To garner support for building public housing, “they advanced a narrative about how members of the ‘worthy poor’ would temporarily reside in public housing before moving up into the private real estate market,” she says. Once public perception shifted from the idea of initiating social mobility to the idea of managing an existing problem, people living in public housing were characterized differently. “In fact, depictions of public housing change over time such that we don’t see people as much as we see the deterioration of the buildings,” Ammon says.
In this context, housing becomes a design problem about fixing structures, compared to a people-focused approach centered around social programs. Some cities survey blighted properties, which becomes a narrative of progress measured by the yardstick of demolition. “The stories repeat,” Ammon says. “Housing as physical and housing as social are two different ways of thinking about the problem. Of course, it is both. But an emphasis one way or the other shapes the solutions that are proposed,” she says.
“I believe very strongly in the relevance of history to contemporary practice,” Ammon says. “We have to understand the origins of the problems that we’re trying to solve.”
‘A double whammy’ of historical and present-day racism
Until Camille Charles was three years old, it would have been legal to not sell her a home because of the color of her skin. Although this may seem like “ancient history” to her students, the legacy of redlining combined with ongoing violations of the Fair Housing Act presents a “cumulative cost to the community,” Charles says.
Charles, who is a professor of sociology, Africana studies, and education in the School of Arts & Sciences, and her co-author, Justin P. Steil, associate professor of law and urban planning at MIT, “wouldn’t be the first to argue that [a legislative approach] to civil rights … obstructed a view of just how ingrained anti-Black sentiment and ideology is in American society.” Putting laws in place for the future does not erase history, Charles says. “And so not only do we still have institutional racism in the present, but we carry forward that historic experience, and it negatively impacts people into the present. It’s kind of like a double whammy, in a sense.”
Ongoing discrimination continues at the local level. “You can get different appraisal values if you have white people in your house and take down your ethnic art,” Charles says. “Discrimination is occurring and has always occurred at every step in the process.” Segregation remains a constant reality, improving “pocket by pocket” in areas that have smaller minority populations, she says. “Part of the problem is that local areas do have a lot of power, and it comes down to what they’re willing to take on.”
Society as a whole would benefit from addressing housing inequality, Charles says. “Poverty is detrimental to all Americans, it’s just less detrimental to those who aren’t poor.” The Fair Housing Act was watered down in order to make it palatable to Congress, and it lacks the funding for enforcement. “To reduce inequality, you do have to keep examining and keep pushing to think about the spirit of the act as it was intended, not necessarily as it was passed,” she says.
Addressing this issue “requires the kind of reckoning that people are talking about trying to have now, but it’s not going to come easily. And it’s not going to be fast,” Charles says. “We’re moving in the right direction at a speed that we haven’t seen since the events leading up to the passage of the Fair Housing Act. But I think that it will be similarly tumultuous. I don’t know that it means there are going to be dogs and fire hoses. I hope not. But, you know, I think it’s not going to come without resistance.”
Fair housing starts with fair education
“Schools,” says Akira Rodríguez of the Weitzman School, “are the last frontier of segregation.” Rodríguez and her co-author Rand Quinn of the Graduate School of Education look at the relationship between fair housing and access to public goods and services and are concerned with making sure that the public realm remains accessible. “While those who operate in the field of urban planning prefer to see themselves as unbiased civil servants, “all they’re doing is politics; all they’re doing is making decisions about which land parcels are valuable for different types of development,” she says. Public education is often tied to property tax, ensuring that districts with lucrative businesses and highly appraised homes have more money to funnel into public education than those with public housing and vacant lots. “There is no comprehensive federal legislation on funding education equitably,” she says. “It’s intentional.”
Fair housing and fair schooling should not be considered apart from one another, says Quinn. “Our goal for the chapter was to illuminate the parallel and interconnected histories of reform in public housing and public schooling, with an emphasis on the critical role Black families played in challenging injustice in these sectors.”
Schools shape where people live. “Housing choice is shaped by school quality, and if you build good schools, you will see better housing outcomes,” Rodríguez says. While Americans may believe that they are simply making individual choices about where to work, live, and raise a family, “our choices are structured by our positioning.”
Rodríguez’s own choices are shaped by society, as she struggles to secure the financing to renovate her childhood home in South Philadelphia. “I’m getting background checks, I’m getting double, triple, credit checks, I’m getting employment verification, I’m getting that before I even get to say hello,” she says. “And so, choices are not really choices. They are the opportunities that are afforded to us by historical position.” This is about racism, Rodríguez says. “This is about, if you’re Black, your property is not worth anything, your schools won’t get funded, you will not get to this college, you will not get the high paying job.”
Changes that address these differences will create “equity versus equality tensions,” because making something fair for one group will feel unfair to another, Rodríguez says. Pushing for integration results in resistance, “because suddenly white people feel like they weren’t consulted. Like, I did not sign up for this ‘fair.’ And likewise, non-white people didn’t sign up for like a lifetime of discrimination. This idea that fairness is a zero-sum-game comes from a very ahistorical understanding.”
Intersectional fair housing
The main conversations around the Fair Housing Act have been appropriately centered around anti-Black racism, says Amy Hillier of the School of Social Policy & Practice, but she and her co-author, Devin Michelle Bunten of MIT, expand that focus to include intersectionality.
“The traditional complaint process asks, what’s the one identity that’s the basis of this discrimination? Is it because you’re a mother of young children? Is it because you’re living with AIDS? Is it because you’re Black? Is it because you’re a woman?” Hillier says. “You could check multiple boxes, but that’s not how intersectionality works. It’s not two different people. It’s one Black trans woman, facing housing discrimination.”
“We were asked to look at LGBT communities and what we ultimately wanted to do was to broaden that,” Hillier says. Instead of limiting themselves to queer and trans populations, Hillier and her co-author wanted to draw attention to how identities play out for those marginalized in multiple ways, she says.
In considering the nuances of fair housing in the 21st century, Hillier and her co-author “dug deep,” she says. The project “forced me to connect some dots and also to become much more familiar with the legal landscape,” Hillier says. The Supreme Court decision on June 16 that said the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (prohibiting sex discrimination) applies to sexual orientation and gender identity will have ripple effects in the fair housing debates, she says. “There are so many legal issues and the ground is moving constantly.”
There is no comprehensive federal legislation for LGBTQ+ people. Many states, including Pennsylvania, do not offer systematic protection, Hillier says. Just as housing access has a white-centered focus, so too, it has a cis-heteronormative conception of what is normal. “We were able to document a long history of cis-normativity and transphobia within so much of not just national legislation but also in the way in which housing happens on a local level,” says Hillier. “How do we define families? How do we define who gets to live together? What are the bounds? What does fair housing look like in a prison? What does it look like in a homeless shelter?”
The implementation of fair housing around gender and sexual orientation has been “rolled back” under the Trump administration, with “educational materials literally taken off of websites” that provide protocol for homeless shelters about how to provide housing for someone who does not identify with the gender assigned to them at birth, Hillier says. Without education and legal structure, society defaults to individual decision-making that is dependent on the personal ideologies of particular prison guards or shelter administrators, she says. “At the end of the day, there is so much interaction based on whether or not people have access to housing … It adds to layers of marginalization.”
Barriers around home ownership restrict access to economic growth
The book’s fifth chapter, “The Fair Housing Act’s original sin: administrative discretion and the persistence of segregation,” addresses the Act’s logistical shortcomings, in spite of its significant strengths. Co-authors Nestor M. Davidson and Eduardo M. Peñalver argue that the institutional structures and legal tools Congress established to advance desegregation rely on agency discretion, thus limiting their scope and fundamentally shortchanging the Fair Housing Act’s mandate. An alternative path must be imagined in order to combat racially concentrated poverty, Davidson and Peñalver say.
When fair housing issues are collectively compiled, “you realize that it permeates everything in our society comprehensively and collectively. You just see how it’s one of the most pressing issues of our time [and] a persistent issue throughout the history of our country,” says Vincent Reina of the Weitzman School, who focuses on housing economics and policy in the chapter he co-authors with Raphael Bostic, president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.
Housing affordability and neighborhood access translate to personal and economic well-being. “One of the clear findings that runs across all of those realities is systemic discrimination in housing markets,” Reina says. This affects the ability of minority—particularly Black—households to access homeownership (and the price appreciation that comes with it), as well as a broad set of neighborhood amenities like higher performing schools. These results are tied to the way capital markets flow—and the way in which they are restricted by discrimination, pointing to “the real need for government to intervene in markets in ways that promote equity, rather than in ways that further inequality,” Reina says.
This plays out with two dynamics in cities like Philadelphia. There’s both a significant lack of investment in large portions of the city and a significant barrier around access to capital, Reina says. When development happens, “systems are in place that limit minority households’ ability to benefit from those opportunities, broadening existing inequities.” This implicates how fully people are able to engage in cities, engage in the economy, and have agency over their own lives, he says. “Who really benefits from those moments [of investment]?”
“The lack of fair housing has direct implications for individuals, but it also effects local, regional, and our national economy,” Reina says. Housing values represent a source of tax revenue for municipalities that can be reinvested in local services. Housing affordability affects access to quality housing in neighborhoods where investments occur. This has a direct effect on how people can engage in the economy, including the way in which small businesses leverage housing wealth to create and invest in their businesses. “While there is undeniable moral justification for addressing existing barriers to fair housing, there is also a clear economic argument that can and should be made,” Reina says.
The future of fair housing
In terms of the future of cities, “hopefully people are realizing that it takes more than one policy to correct the problems that have persisted as a reality for so many for so long,” Reina says. “It takes structural thinking about the years of compounding inequality” that led up to this moment. “This problem is bigger than any one neighborhood, it’s bigger than any one city, it’s bigger than any one region. Therefore, any response needs to be much bigger than that as well, and in many ways has to involve a whole revisioning of the way we approach housing, community economic development.”
Before moving forward, cities need to reckon with “a long and complicated history that has led them to these systemic differences and the need for really significant bold, structural changes to the way we’re approaching the very things we’re doing.” This involves implementing programs and changing policies, but also a broader view of the interconnectedness of housing, economics, health, and access “to create the truly equitable just cities that we’re trying to foster,” Reina says.
Susan Wachter is the co-director of the Penn Institute for Urban Research, which has as its mission, sustainable and equitable cities. In her experience as assistant secretary at HUD, “the issue of fair housing is foremost in delivering spatial equity and overcoming entrenched bias,” she says. Wachter also saw an urgent need for additional research and data during her time in the public sector, and the importance of making that data publicly available, she says.
Penn is in a good position to analyze these issues and conduct “interdisciplinary research, that’s our DNA,” Wachter says. “Perspectives in Fair Housing” came out of this approach, bringing academics together with policy makers and practitioners for the purpose of improving societal access. “Penn could help a national discussion on important issues for our cities,” Wachter says. “We have a path and we need to deepen it.”
Francesca Russello Ammon is associate professor of city and regional planning and historical preservation in the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design.
Camille Z. Charles is the Walter H. and Leonore C. Annenberg Professor in the Social Sciences and Professor of Sociology, Africana Studies, and Education in the School of Arts & Sciences.
Amy Hillier is associate professor in the School of Social Policy & Practice and associate professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning in the Weitzman School.
Susan Wachter is the Albert Sussman Professor of Real Estate and Professor of Finance in the Wharton School; Professor of City and Regional Planning in the Weitzman School; and co-director of the Penn Institute for Urban Research.
Homepage image: As depicted on signage carried during the Civil Rights March on Washington in 1963, decent housing was just one among many rights that activists were demanding. (Warren K. Leffler, U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.)