Happy Fair Housing Month!

It’s finally April, and you know what that means….National Fair Housing Month!  Fair Housing — title VIII of the 1968 Civil Rights Act — prohibits discrimination in housing on the basis of race, color, religion, gender or national origin. In conjunction with our earlier posts drawing attention to embedded racism and discrimination in New York City, we hope that our blog provides a space to critically reflect on the role that race plays in current housing practice and policy.

Fair Housing became law as a result of the political climate of 1968.  Prior to his assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King was organizing Open Housing marches in Chicago. Outrage over his death provided the energy to pass progressive housing and anti discrimination policy.  As the war in Vietnam claimed the lives of men of color, their families in the United States could not afford housing and were actively discriminated against. The NAACP, the GI Forum, and the National Committee against Discrimination in Housing lobbied hard to pass the bill to ensure housing for Vietnam War veterans, their widowed families, and people of color.  To learn more about the history of Fair Housing, check out Housing and Urban Development’s post here.

To this day, Fair Housing law is used in significant ways to hold developers, banks, and communities accountable for discriminatory housing practices.  As we’ve discussed before on the blog, there has been an ongoing case and recent victory in Westchester County, NY around Fair Housing, which HUD describes their website.

HUD brokered a landmark settlement agreement in a case that alleged Westchester County, New York, made false claims to the federal government when it made civil rights certifications required to receive funding. The certification requires the County to provide greater housing opportunities and choice for its minority residents in non-minority communities, free from discrimination. Westchester County subsequently agreed to build 750 units of affordable housing in areas with very low minority concentration. HUD and Westchester County are now working together to ensure that the settlement produces a clear strategy for promoting diverse, inclusive communities.

While there are certainly exciting victories, the Fair Housing law is not all inclusive, and we must continue to question and improve it. Not all populations are protected by the law: previously incarcerated people or ex-sex offenders are still heavily restricted in terms of where and how they live, even after serving time in jail.

UHAB and our legal allies are researching lending practice and hoping to further understand how banks are culpable for upholding Fair Housing standards. Historically, banks have received criticism for red lining — a practice by which banks would map neighborhoods and literally draw RED LINES around neighborhoods of color, indicating that they would not lend in these neighborhoods. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 and the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 both established, in part, to regulate equal levels of lending in minority communities and end red-lining.

Philadelphia Red-Lining Map from 1934

Many housing and fair lending advocates, however, place blame for the foreclosure crisis at the feet of the banks. In the years following the end of red-lining, it was was replaced by sub-prime lending: equally dangerous and discriminatory. A sub-prime mortgage is characterized by higher interest rates and less favorable borrowing terms. In the years leading up to 2008, many contend that banks and mortgage companies targeted minority communities for sub-prime loans. You can read more about its racial implications at HUD.

At UHAB, we question the role of Fair Housing in multi-family lending. If the owner (borrower) is white, but the residents are almost entirely people of color, what Fair Housing responsibly do the banks have? Off the bat, we believe that underwriting standards on multifamily buildings must be the same in communities of color as in white communities.

We work primarily in distressed, overleveraged buildings in foreclosure. Is it just a coincidence that almost all the buildings we go to are over 90% communities of color in the Bronx and Brooklyn? We don’t think so, and believe that there is believe that these facts point to the need ensure banks are complying with Fair Housing practice in multifamily lending.

This month and every month, we encourage you to think critically about Fair Housing– what’s gone well, what needs improvement, who’s left out, etc– and feel free to post your ideas on our blog!


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