Why April is Fair Housing Month

President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Fair Housing Act into Law
President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Fair Housing Act into Law

On April 11, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which was intended to expand the protections first established in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The ’68 Act prohibited discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin, gender, and, with a later amendment, family structure and people with disabilities.

Writing from Atlanta, long considered to be the birthplace of the civil rights movement, the passage of this important Act has special meaning. Despite years of discussion and consideration, a bill to enact a fair housing policy consistently failed to garner enough support to pass the House and Senate.

April 4, 1968

Then on April 4, 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, TN while supporting striking workers in a movement for equitable pay and living conditions. Beginning with the housing marches in Chicago in 1966, Dr. King had been closely associated with the fair housing movement. President Johnson used this moment of national tragedy to push for the passage of the Civil Rights Act and its housing component, Title VIII, known as the Fair Housing Act of 1968. He believed the passage of the act would serve as a fitting tribute to Dr. King’s life and mission. Johnson personally committed to seeing the Civil Rights Act passed before Dr. King’s funeral, which was to be held in Atlanta on April 9th. Two days after the funeral, President Johnson signed the bill into law.

Equal access to housing is vital if, as a nation, we intend to live up to the principles enshrined in the Fair Housing Act — the commitment to equality and opportunity for all. Unfortunately, America’s history of unfair housing policies has inflicted staggering losses on marginalized communities. Racist policies locked Black families out of neighborhoods or entire municipalities, unfair practices denied women a path to homeownership in their own names, and the failure to uphold veteran rights equally denied access to VA home loans to generations of returning veterans based on skin color. As a result, these practices have inflicted staggering gaps in housing equity.

Gaps Remain 

There is a direct line from the overtly discriminatory practices of the past (and present) to the severe inequity the nation is experiencing today. More than 50 years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, the homeownership gap between white and Black households remains the same as it was in 1968 – a 30% difference according to REALTOR Magazine.

39% of owner households and 50% of renters are mortgage or rent burdened in many parts of the country, including metro Atlanta. Recent data from the (Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta indicate that the metro area’s most populous counties, Fulton and DeKalb are unaffordable based on median home prices and income. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, since 2019, metro Atlanta experienced a 12.5% decline in affordability in home prices.

Atlanta, GA.
Atlanta, GA.

The passage of the Fair Housing Act outlawed discrimination, but it included lax enforcement power and little remedy for the decades of harm that came before it. Historic practices have denied generations the benefits of homeownership, prevented the accumulation of net worth, and prevented the transfer of generational wealth.

Increasingly high rental rates and a severe shortage of affordable rental properties mean that more households are paying in excess of half of their income on housing. According to the Center on Budget and Policy, this burden is falling primarily on the Black (24%) and Hispanic (24%) populations. As the percentage of income required for rent continues to rise, housing stability is threatened. This threat impacts much of a family’s overall well-being. In contrast, secure housing that is affordable based on household income has been shown to improve health outcomes, increase academic performance, provide working adults with an increased ability to perform well at work, and have a positive impact on a host of other areas that make for a healthy life.

Housing Justice is Social Justice 

The Fair Housing Act became law during a time of tremendous social change. It was enacted with the best of intentions, but evidence of its shortcomings cannot be overlooked in cities and towns across the nation. As we commemorate Fair Housing Month, let us rededicate ourselves to being part of the solution as Mercy Housing strives to create more housing in more communities, providing homes and thriving communities to more of our citizens in ways that build equality, equity, and fairness for all.

Beth Haynes, Mercy Housing Southeast