open housing

Fair housing

In the United States, the fair housing (also open housing) policies date largely from the 1960s. Originally, the terms fair housing and open housing came from a political movement of the time to outlaw discrimination in the rental or purchase of homes and a broad range of other housing-related transactions, such as advertising, mortgage lending, homeowner's insurance and zoning. Later, the same language was used in laws. At the urging of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, Congress passed the federal Fair Housing Act (Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968) in April 1968, only one week after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr..

The primary purpose of the Fair Housing Law of 1968 is to protect the dwelling seeker from seller or landlord discrimination. It does this by protecting the buyer's or renter's right to discriminate. The goal is a unitary housing market in which a person's background (as opposed to financial resources) does not arbitrarily restrict access. Calls for open housing were issued early in the twentieth century, but it was not until after World War II that concerted efforts to achieve it were undertaken.

Up to 1968

While the Civil Rights Act of 1866 included language that could be construed as creating a fair housing policy, no federal enforcement provisions were given. In 1948, the Supreme Court ruled that racially restrictive covenants in real estate were unenforceable in court. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 also addressed the issue, but made few provisions for enforcement.

The Fair Housing Act (Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968) introduced meaningful federal enforcement mechanisms. It outlawed:

  • Refusal to sell or rent a dwelling to any person because of race, color, religion or national origin.
  • Discrimination based on race, color, religion or national origin in the terms, conditions or privilege of the sale or rental of a dwelling.
  • Advertising the sale or rental of a dwelling indicating preference of discrimination based on race, color, religion or national origin.
  • Coercing, threatening, intimidating, or interfering with a person's enjoyment or exercise of housing rights based on discriminatory reasons or retaliating against a person or organization that aids or encourages the exercise or enjoyment of fair housing rights.

Open housing since 1968

When the Fair Housing Act was first enacted, it prohibited discrimination only on the basis of race, color, religion and national origin. In 1974, sex was added to the list of protected classes, and in 1988, disability and familial status (the presence or anticipated presence of children under 18 in a household) were added (further codified in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990). In certain circumstances, the law allows limited exceptions for discrimination based on sex, religion, or familial status.

The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development is the cabinet agency with the statutory authority to administer and enforce the Fair Housing Act. The Secretary of Housing and Urban Development has delegated fair housing enforcement and compliance activities to HUD's Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO) and HUD's Office of General Counsel. FHEO is one of the United States' largest federal civil rights agencies. It has a staff of more than 600 people located in 54 offices around the United States. As of 2007, the current head of FHEO is Assistant Secretary Kim Kendrick, confirmed October 7, 2005.

Individuals who believe they have experienced housing discrimination can file a complaint with FHEO at no charge. FHEO funds and has working agreements with many state and local governmental agencies where "substantially equivalent" fair housing laws are in place. Under these agreements, FHEO refers complaints to the state or locality where the alleged incident occurred, and those agencies investigate and process the case instead of FHEO. This is known as FHEO's Fair Housing Assistance Program (or "FHAP").

There is also a network of private, non-profit fair housing advocacy organizations throughout the country. Some are funded by FHEO's Fair Housing Initiatives Program (or "FHIP"), and some operate with private donations or grants from other sources.

Victims of housing discrimination need not go through HUD or any other governmental agency to pursue their rights, however. The Fair Housing Act confers jurisdiction to hear cases on federal district courts. The United States Department of Justice also has jurisdiction to file cases on behalf of the United States where there is a pattern and practice of discrimination or where HUD has found discrimination in a case and either party elects to go to federal court instead of continuing in the HUD administrative process.

The Fair Housing Act applies to landlords renting or leasing space in their primary residence only if the residence contains living quarters occupied or intended to be occupied by three or more other families living independently of each other, such as an owner-occupied rooming house.

A case study in local fair housing: Seattle, Washington

As remarked above, federal fair housing law is paralleled by state and local fair housing law. The same was true of the campaign for the enactment of these laws. Seattle, Washington is a case in point. As with the national movement, the movement in Seattle occurred against a background of other Civil Rights activity.

In 1956, Seattle's Civic Unity Committee created the Greater Seattle Housing Council, intending to encourage dialogue between proponents of open housing and the real estate industry. At this time, talks were fruitless. The following year, Washington State passed an Omnibus Civil Rights Act that provided that housing that had current federal or state government loans could not discriminate on the basis of race. In 1959, this was challenged in King County Superior Court.

The civil rights campaign in Seattle stepped up in October 1961, when the Seattle Employment Discrimination campaign urged selective buying with campaigns referred to as well a "shoe-in" and a "shop-in." In this same time frame, the NAACP requested an open housing ordinance. The Seattle City Council convened a public hearing on the matter on December 11, 1961, but declined to act, recommending instead that supporters of such a law organize a ballot initiative.

Rather than focus immediately on legislation, proponents of open housing pursued a different channel in the short run: in the summer of 1962, 24 organizations created the Fair Housing Listing Service (FHLS) to bring blacks who wished to purchase housing outside of Seattle's historically black Central District together with white homeowners willing to sell to minorities. By the beginning of 1965, FHLS negotiated 50 such sales.

On December 17, 1962, the Mayor's Citizen's Advisory Committee on Minority Housing recommended that an open housing ordinance be submitted to city council, but the mayor and council delayed all action for a year. That year would prove eventful.

The Urban League and NAACP resigned from the Greater Seattle Housing Council because they believed had been ineffective in housing matters. A new committee was formed, the Central Area Civil Rights Committee (CACRC). 400 people participated in a protest march July 1, 1963, and 35 youth from the interracial Central District Youth Club staged Seattle's first sit-in, a nearly 24-hour occupation of the mayor's office. That very day the city council and mayor proposed a Seattle Human Rights Commission, which was established July 17 (City Ordinance 92191). The commission was authorized to draft open housing ordinance. This did not prevent a July 20 sit-in in the council chambers.

On August 28, 1963, the same day as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, 1,000 demonstrators marched from Seattle's First AME Church to the Federal Courthouse. Also that same day, Seattle Public Schools became the country's first major school system to initiate a voluntary desegregation plan. A week later, September 3 1963, the Seattle Human Rights Commission recommended an ordinance against discrimination in housing sales, rentals, and financing.

An October 20 march in support of open housing drew 1,200 people. Five days later, the city council, meeting as a Committee of the Whole, held a public hearing on the open housing bill recommended by the Seattle Human Rights Commission. The bill was approved 7-2, but was stripped of the emergency clause that would have made a council vote sufficient to turn the bill immediately into law without the possibility of being overturned by a referendum. As would have been the case with or without an emergency clause, the Committee of the Whole sent the bill to the council as such (the same people) for a final vote. The two council votes against the final version of the bill were Wing Luke and Charles M. Carroll, both opposing it because the emergency clause had been taken out.

On November 27, 1963 the council approved the bill (as Ordinance 92497) by the same 7–2 margin, without the emergency clause. On December 9, 1963, Ordinance 92533 submitted Ordinance 92497 to the voters by charter referendum as part of a general election on March 10, 1964.

However, prospects did not bode well. On February 12, 1964 voters in nearby Tacoma, Washington defeated similar legislation by a margin of 3-1. On March 7, three days before the referendum vote, over 1,500 attended an open housing rally, marching from several places around the city to Westlake Plaza, but the March 10 election saw the ordinance go down to defeat, 115,627 to 54,448, as J. Dorm Braman, an opponent of open housing, was elected mayor of Seattle, defeating open housing supporter John Cherberg.

In summer 1964, the Freedom Summer was occurring in Mississippi and (on July 2) President Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In Seattle, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) initiated the Drive for Equal Employment in Downtown Stores (DEEDS), with a goal that minorities would constitute 24% of new hires in those stores. Through January 1965, these stores were subjected to boycotts. CORE also organized pickets and sit-ins at local real estate industry offices, but a court-ordered injunction terminated the latter protests.

Thirteen days after Bloody Sunday (March 7, 1965, when the Selma-to-Montgomery march in Alabama came under violent attack), more than 600 people in Seattle—a group slightly larger than the Selma-to-Montgomery march itself—took part in a "Freedom March" in support of the Selma marchers. Marching from the First AME Church to the Federal Courthouse, under the leadership of the NAACP, they demanded open housing legislation and equal job opportunities.

Seattle's open housing forces took a blow when, on May 15, 1965, just before the summer of the Voting Rights Act and the Watts Riots, an airplane crash killed Sidney Gerber and city council member Wing Luke. Gerber had founded Harmony Homes, which by that time had built 15 homes for African Americans in previously all-white Seattle neighborhoods.

Momentum was regained two years later, when on June 8, 1967 the Seattle Urban League initiated the three-year Operation Equality. Operation Equality provided counsel to minorities seeking housing, sponsored educational projects, and worked with fair housing groups to list available housing. It was the second such project in the United States to receive a Ford Foundation grant.

Later that year, Sam Smith won a Seattle City Council seat in the November election, becoming the first African American to serve on the council.

On April 11, 1968, one week after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968. "Fair housing" had become federal policy, and Seattle had lost its opportunity to get out in front of the federal government on the matter. Eight days later, on April 19, 1968, the Seattle City Council unanimously passed a fair housing ordinance (Ordinance 96619). This time, sponsored by Smith and five other members of the 9-member council, it passed with an emergency clause, making it impossible to appeal by referendum by the voters.

Over the years, the legislation would be broadened further. In 1975, discrimination based on sex, marital status, sexual orientation, and political ideology were outlawed. In 1979, parental status was added; in 1986, creed and disability; and in 1999 gender identity.

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