Looking at the Fair Housing Act from today’s perspective, it seems like simple common sense—of course we don’t want to be discriminatory in our housing practices. So why is the 50th birthday of the FHA such a big deal? In order celebrate the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, I thought I would take a look back at both the immediate context surrounding the enactment of this legislation, as well as the history of the Fair Housing Administration.
The Fair Housing Administration was created in 1934 to help regulate interest rates and mortgage terms so people could afford housing following the great depression and banking crisis of the 1930’s. Sounds like a great opportunity for homeownership, right? Unfortunately, the Underwriting Manual, created in 1936 for the association, severely inhibited the rights of homeownership based on personal characteristics—namely race. In fact, the Underwriting Manual stated that deed restrictions could and should include a “prohibition of the occupancy of properties except by the race for which they are intended.” The application of this is a process known as “redlining,” where certain minorities would be refused mortgages in specific neighborhoods in order to preserve the “devaluation” of neighborhoods.
Now fast forward to the 1960’s. Common practices and beliefs were beginning to be challenged. Pressure for change was mounting, and racial tensions and riots erupted all over the nation. In 1967, President Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission to investigate the source of these riots. The subsequent report highlighted frustration surrounding unfair housing practices, but no action was taken.
It was not until the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, that the Fair Housing Act gained the needed momentum to be enacted. As it turns out, King’s death actually brought to life the Fair Housing Act, adding to his enormous legacy. A mere seven days after his assassination, the Act was passed, after languishing in Congress for several years. Originally, the Act prohibited discrimination in the sale, rental and financing of swellings based on race, color, religion, or national origin. The Act was amended in 1974, adding “sex” as a protected class, and further amended in 1984 to protect “familial status” and “disability” as well.
And the bottom line? The 50th birthday of the Fair Housing Act is cause for great celebration, as it represents and embodies the culmination of work pioneered by King and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s as well as a commitment to working towards equal housing opportunities for all.