Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
That "inescapable network of mutuality" described by Martin Luther King, Jr. begins in our communities. Where we live shapes our lives, our interactions with others, our work life, our health, and our education. Each of us has a role to play in creating communities that are welcoming, safe, and open to all.
Today, this goal is more important than ever because the nation is becoming increasingly diverse. Currently, African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans make up more than 30 percent of our population. In a few decades, those groups are projected to represent a majority of U.S. residents. These groups represent our future workers, the people whose skills and talents must be harnessed to ensure the nation’s economic viability.
Forty years ago, after Congress passed Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (the "Fair Housing Act"), which prohibits discrimination in public and private housing markets that is based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, or familial status. The Act requires communities and the federal government to proactively further fair housing, residential integration, and equal opportunity goals; however, equal opportunity in housing remains a major challenge, with collateral impact far beyond four walls and a roof.
That is why the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights/Education Fund, the National Fair Housing Alliance, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law came together to form the National Commission on Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity to investigate the state of fair housing in this 40th anniversary year.
Our seven-member commission was co-chaired by former U.S. Housing and Urban Development(HUD) Secretaries, the Honorable Jack Kemp, a Republican, and the Honorable Henry Cisneros, a Democrat, confirming that fair housing is not a partisan issue. Over the past six months, we held hearings in five major U.S. cities – Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Boston, and Atlanta – to assess our progress in achieving fair housing for all.
The hearings exposed the fact that despite strong legislation, past and ongoing discriminatory practices in the nation’s housing and lending markets continue to produce extreme levels of residential segregation that result in significant disparities between minority and non-minority households, in access to good jobs, quality education, homeownership attainment and asset accumulation. This fact has led many to question whether the federal government is doing all it can to combat housing discrimination. Worse, some fear that rather than combating segregation, HUD and other federal agencies are promoting it through the administration of their housing, lending, and tax programs.
We heard testimony from hundreds of witnesses that there are still far too many segregated neighborhoods where skin color determines school quality and economic opportunity; and where municipal services track race and income, rather than need.
The hearings showed us that discrimination continues to be endemic, intertwined into the very fabric of our lives. Ironically, even though more Americans than ever are living in diverse communities, residential segregation remains high. Sustaining the racial and ethnic stability in diverse communities remains a challenge because of perceptions and prejudices that devitalize them. And while nationally the incidence of discrimination is down, there are at least 4 million fair housing violations in our country every year. That is far too many.
Demographics tell the tale.
Today, two-thirds of new households being formed are either racial or ethnic minorities or immigrants. This population is now looking for housing for the first time. In addition, now more than ever, individuals with disabilities are rightfully seeking greater access to opportunities in every sector. Equal opportunity in housing offers the chance to live, work, and interact in richly diverse settings and opens doors to other opportunities – in education, health care and employment.
For all of these reasons, our communities and neighborhoods must reflect a richer, more robust heterogeneity, one that draws on the strengths of all Americans. Everyone recognizes that our nation’s ability to achieve any measure of economic, educational, or social justice is tied to our ability to promote fairness in our housing system.
While what we learned about the state of fair housing was sobering, this report is by no means gloomy. We have made progress. The combined efforts of leaders within our communities, fair housing advocates, committed members of the housing industry and government action has ensured that housing opportunities are fairer than they were four decades ago. Most states and many localities have fair housing laws, some of which provide greater protection than the federal Fair Housing Act. The ethical codes of most housing industry groups include a commitment to fair housing, and state real estate licensing laws require fair housing training and continuing education. HUD’s 2000 Housing Discrimination Study showed a reduction in the overall discrimination rate in residential sales and information on housing availability, though an increase in racial steering.
And our witnesses did not just testify about problems. People came forward with solutions. All over America, thoughtful advocates, housing experts, and families are working to find ways to build equal opportunity in housing.
Over time, Americans have become more interested in living in communities that are racially and ethnically diverse. Many fair housing organizations are well established and provide a broad range of fair housing services to our communities, including work to build alliances with housing industry groups and local governments to produce quality training and effective outreach, working to build public support for fair housing.
Yet much more is needed.
Equal housing opportunity must be our collective goal. But as recent history has demonstrated, we cannot get there working in silos. Only together, with a mix of education, enforcement, and policy tools, working across partisan lines, with government and private partnerships coordinated at the local, state, regional and federal level, can we begin to make our dreams real.
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