The Fair Housing Rights Act of 1968 was passed during a tumultuous time in the nation’s history. The country was reeling from the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the fight for civil rights was still ongoing.

Many African-Americans and people of color were not guaranteed fair housing until President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the act into law. In the 50 years since it was passed, housing discrimination is still an issue that is being addressed. 

EBONY spoke to Lisa Rice, president and CEO of National Fair Housing, to shed light on the 50th anniversary of the act’s passage and how people can fight housing discrimination today.

EBONY: After the Fair Housing Act was enacted in law, why do we still have racial discrimination issues in housing?

Lisa Rice: Housing discrimination and residential segregation in America is so entrenched; we did not start out being residentially segregated as a society. After slavery ended in 1865, we went through a period of reconstruction in America, in which the government was trying to extend protections to people of color.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signing Fair Housing Act on April 11, 1968.

But what happened was after Reconstruction ended and all of the Southern states got brought back into the Union, we began to see … an apartheid system and structure set up in the United States, and the federal government, state governments and local governments were very much involved in establishing that separate and unequal system.

The federal government hired real estate professionals to go across the country and create what were called “residential security maps.” This would have been in the late 1930s early 1940s, right before World War II was starting. They were supposed to catalog and sort of identify, or try to provide a descriptor of communities in cities across the country, so, that these communities and areas could be graded.

There were four different grades: green, blue, yellow and red. Part of the grading for the neighborhood, which depended upon the number of African-Americans living in that community. If there were any African-Americans living in the neighborhood it would automatically receive a red color and that red represented “hazardous.”

And obviously, that has a lasting impact.

Exactly. What you will see is almost a direct overlay for the areas that are graded red or hazardous, if you compare those to where Black folks live today. It’s a direct overlay. As African-Americans are coming up moving from the South to the North during the Great Migration, cities are funneling them. They’re segregating African-Americans and other people of color into these redlined areas.

Redlining of Manhattan
Source: Mapping inequality. Redlining of Manhattan, NY

In those redline areas, banks would not lend, banks pulled out, insurance companies would not insure houses and businesses disinvested from those communities. These are the same communities where you’ll find there are no grocery stores, etc … but conversely, there are a plethora of predatory service providers like payday lenders and check cashers.

What’s National Fair Housing doing to counteract policies that are seen as racist?

A number of things. We have education and outreach program in which we’re trying to educate the victims of discrimination about their rights and provisions, their rights and protections under the law.

We also seek to educate municipalities and housing providers about how not to discriminate and educate the general public about the benefits of fair housing. We also have a strong public policy program. We work with mostly the federal government, but also state and local governments to pass pro-fair housing laws and regulations and then also prevent the passage of anti-fair housing provisions, which, believe it or not, still happens today.

How can people counter predatory behavior in housing?

One of the things that they can do is support organizations like ours who are doing this work. Unfortunately, fighting housing discrimination isn’t a sexy thing, so we don’t get a lot of support.

The other thing that people can do is report housing discrimination when they see it. There are 4 million instances of housing discrimination that occur in America each year. Only about 29,000 of them are reported. That’s a huge gap.

LeBron James’ home was vandalized with racial epithets. That was an act of housing discrimination. He filed a criminal charge and police were called, but no complaint was filed with a Fair Housing Agency so that we could investigate that as an act of housing discrimination. It was an act of discrimination, but it’s an unreported act.

We can’t count that in our numbers because it was not officially reported. Things like that that occur every day around the United States and people just don’t know that it is a violation of the law and therefore they don’t report it. And unfortunately, the underreporting of housing discrimination is a problem as well.

How can people identify if they’re being discriminated against when it comes to housing?

Unfortunately, discrimination is hidden. People will smile in your face, give you a cup of coffee, hand you a donut and discriminate against you. It’s hard to tell because discrimination is done with a handshake and a smile. Discrimination is also done in other clandestine ways via technology [using the internet.]

We tell people to take a look at our website, look at our educational tool and try to recognize the signs of discrimination, but if you notice something funny call your local fair housing organization so that they can check it out.

We do something in our enforcement program … called testing. We send people undercover to inquire about a particular housing product or service. It could be checking to see if an apartment is still available for rent or checking to see if a house is available for purchase or checking on loan products or insurance homeowner’s insurance products.

We send testers undercover. One White, one Black. And that testing scenario is designed to simulate a real-life housing transaction. When we get the results back, if we see differences that are tangible then we know that those differences are based on race or national origin or whatever the protected class is.