Two years before his assassination in Memphis, Martin Luther King Jr. marched through Chicago’s Southwest Side to protest housing segregation. After being struck by a stone and falling to the ground, King explained that this danger was worth the risk to bring attention to—and force urban white leaders to make commitments around—open housing and residential desegregation. King called his Chicago march for equity “a first step in a 1,000 mile journey,” understanding that housing access and location impact health, education, transportation, employment, and more.
The Fair Housing Act, passed only one week after King’s murder in 1968, was a valiant attempt to both build and secure MLK’s increasingly bold dream. But the legacy of the act, which requires cities receiving federal dollars to prohibit housing discrimination and take active steps towards integration, has been dampened by poor or incomplete enforcement, and pervasive policies that exclude poor and middle-class Americans from the highest-opportunity neighborhoods.
Richard Kahlenberg’s latest report, “An Economic Fair Housing Act,” details what has happened to defer that dream, and proposes solutions to help society better realize it.
How Did We Get Here?
Because racial and income segregation are both incredibly common, many believe that these divisions are primarily due to a combination of personal choices and free-market patterns. However, the truth is far more complicated—and nefarious—than that. According to Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, residential areas began to deliberately segregate by race in the early twentieth century, largely by prohibiting blacks from buying homes in majority white areas. Although a Lochner-era U.S. Supreme Court struck down these explicit practices in the 1917 case Buchanan v. Warley, communities quickly found more creative ways to keep discrimination alive.
The creativity led to the advent of economic zoning policies. In 1916, just eight U.S. cities had zoning ordinances; by 1936, that number had grown to 1,246. Some of these policies, known as “exclusionary zoning,” require that neighborhoods consist exclusively of single-family homes, or that homes in some areas have minimum lot sizes or minimum square footage requirements. The Supreme Court upheld these policies in Euclid v. Ambler (1926), finding that excluding apartments and multifamily homes from entire neighborhoods was not just permissible, but could potentially prevent the degradation of an area. An apartment house could be “a mere parasite, constructed in order to take advantage of the open spaces and attractive surroundings created by the residential character of a neighborhood,” the Court wrote, failing to consider that those unable to afford single family homes would be excluded from the same residential bliss that it deemed so worthy of protection.
Today, exclusionary zoning remains widely used. In fact, this discriminatory practice is as much—or more—a disease of liberal U.S. states as it is in their less progressive neighbors. The most severe and pervasive instances of today’s exclusionary zoning occur in the Northeast, while Wharton researchers found that the towns with this negative regulatory environment tended to be less dense and wealthier than counties lacking exclusionary zoning.
Racial covenants, for example, which required purchasers to agree not to sell their homes to black buyers, were recommended by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) even after the Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional.
Meanwhile, race-conscious discrimination continued to thrive. In order to continue to exclude middle- and upper-class blacks from white neighborhoods, public and private interests conspired to establish a web of racist policies and practices surrounding housing and homeownership. Racial covenants, for example, which required purchasers to agree not to sell their homes to black buyers, were recommended by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) even after the Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional, and the real estate industry continued to privately use them until 1977 when it was sued by the Justice Department.
The FHA also established a system of “redlining,” which refused to guarantee mortgages for homes in minority neighborhoods—regardless of the wealth of those neighborhoods or of the applicants. And when and if a minority family moved into a white neighborhood, white mobs routinely harassed them as police refused to intervene. This continued until such behavior was declared a federal crime in 1968. And to this day, public policy continues to steer minority populated public housing units into already high-poverty areas due to cheaper land and the unlikelihood of the surrounding community to robustly organize against it.
The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibits much of this discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, and disability. However, a respected body of research demonstrates that some real estate agents continue to steer black buyers away from white areas, and black families with similar or greater incomes than white families are less likely to qualify for prime loans. In short, not choices, but constraints emerging from bad law and policy, have created and maintained both the racial wealth disparity and racial and economic segregation.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Kahlenberg notes that, while racial segregation remains pervasive and continues to require policy and political attention, economic segregation has been quietly rising as federal, state, and local agencies passively allow or authorize economic exclusion. To deem the Fair Housing Act completely ineffective would be unfair, but its shortcomings around class protections allow for racial animus to cloak itself in “race-neutral” language and disadvantage poor and working class people of all colors and creeds. Directly linked to rising income segregation, exclusionary zoning policies simultaneously impact racial segregation, inhibiting the Fair Housing Act’s efforts to combat it. Ending these policies would remove barriers to high opportunity neighborhoods for families that have been systematically shut out from full realization of the American Dream.
To deem the Fair Housing Act completely ineffective would be unfair, but its shortcomings around class protections allow for racial animus to cloak itself in “race-neutral” language and disadvantage poor and working class people of all colors and creeds.
Exclusionary zoning prioritizes the comfort of the rich over the security of the poor and working classes. As Kahlenberg powerfully writes: “The hypocrisy of eagerly inviting low-income individuals into communities to provide vital child and elderly care, or work in jobs from landscapers to waitresses to checkout clerks—while effectively zoning them out from living anywhere in the community—should be more broadly exposed and reconciled.” The fact remains that where one lives, and particularly where one grows up has a profound impact on their health, educational, and job prospects. Under this system, children suffer the most.
Beyond simply promoting the elimination of exclusionary zoning, Kahlenberg presents positive solutions: funding for “testers” to “ferret out and punish landlords who discriminate,” strong compliance with the Obama-era Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing regulations, and increases in disparate impact litigation, inclusionary zoning programs, and funding targeting public housing authorities that approve segregation.
Perhaps Kahlenberg’s most creative idea is a policy tool that “updates federal and state fair housing acts to frontally assault exclusionary zoning.” As it stands, the Fair Housing Act does not ensure prohibitions against economic discrimination. An Economic Fair Housing Act would make it illegal for municipalities to employ exclusionary zoning policies that discriminate on the basis on income. While the free market would of course continue to price families out of certain homes, government zoning policies would not have a hand in this exclusion. Alternatively, federal or state legislatures could also reduce the amount of mortgage interest that a family can deduct in jurisdictions that practice exclusionary zoning, or could bar federal funding for infrastructure to municipalities that engage in this practice.
Nearly fifty years ago, at another time of political and social turmoil, Congress’s Fair Housing Act took critical first steps to defeat racist policies that limited the opportunities of minorities. Today, racial discrimination, while still very much alive, has mutated and strengthened in the form of economic injustice. It’s time to finish the job of bringing fair housing opportunity to all by ending state-sponsored segregation.