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MLK’s Fair Housing Act: 50 Years Later

This anniversary is more than a reminder of this landmark legislation. It’s a wakeup call.

This 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act is more than a reminder of this landmark legislation. It’s a wakeup call.
Library of Congress

Fifty years ago, on April 11, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Fair Housing Act, which Congress finally passed in reaction to the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The law by definition, “protects people from discrimination when they are renting, buying, or securing financing for housing.” “It specifically prohibits discrimination because of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability and the presence of children.” If properly enforced, the Fair Housing Act could have safeguarded equal housing opportunities for people of color, correcting years of redlining and intentional housing segregation that left nonwhite families at a distinct social and economic disadvantage.

Kari Johnson

Unfortunately, implementation of the Fair Housing Act proved less effective than the racist policies that preceded it. When we fast-forward to more recent times, communities nationwide continue to grapple with systemic racism in housing. As an example locally, those most affected by the foreclosure crisis were predominantly communities of color, because of predatory lending and mortgage products doomed to fail under the weight of market instability. From 2008-2010, Minneapolis saw a surge in its stock of single-family rental properties, especially in north Minneapolis, as the foreclosure crisis pushed families out of homeownership.

The most recent analysis of homeownership rates by the U.S. Census Bureau unsurprisingly showed that, in the Twin Cities, homeownership among black households fell from 29 percent in 2005 to 23 percent in 2015. For Latino households, the rate fell from 49 percent to 38 percent in the same span. Homeownership is a key pathway to opportunity and remains an essential wealth-building tool, especially for traditionally underserved populations. Deprioritizing homeownership in local, state and federal policymaking would be irresponsible and insensitive.

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As a community that voted resoundingly in recent elections in support of candidates committed to expanding affordable housing opportunities, we cannot reinforce policy mistakes that disproportionately affect communities of color. Moving forward, to meaningfully undo a generations-long legacy of housing discrimination, lawmakers, advocates and community members need to put real and lasting solutions at the forefront of policy decisions. Actual investments in people — not just buildings, although preservation and new development is certainly a piece of the puzzle — could move us toward realizing what the Fair Housing Act set forth to accomplish.

We can only get there if we bring all voices to the conversation, especially those that have been locked out of participating in the past. Actualizing equity and understanding white privilege in the context of housing and affordable housing, is not about asking how do we convince communities of color to simply join in the cause. It is about proactively empowering — and listening to — diverse voices and leaders.

This 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act is more than a reminder of this landmark legislation. It’s a wakeup call. We haven’t come close to that decades-old vision for housing equity, and we don’t have any more time to waste.

Kari Johnson is an Obama administration alum and former U.S. Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee staffer, where she worked on housing policy. She currently advocates for affordable housing and economic development policy on behalf of the Metropolitan Consortium of Community Developers (MCCD). 


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