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The Fair Housing Act at 50

Image of Todd M. Richardson, Acting General Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research.Todd M. Richardson, Acting General Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy Development and Research.

April is Fair Housing Month. This year is special because we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act. On April 11, 1968, seven days after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., President Lyndon Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act into law.

I feel a deep connection to fair housing. I, too, was born in 1968. My connection, however, is more closely associated with my parents’ work. In the early 1970s, my father ran the housing programs for the Urban League of Flint, Michigan, and he was heavily involved with efforts to provide more housing opportunities for African-American renters and homebuyers. I remember him coming home one day and showing me with great excitement the new Equal Housing Opportunity logo — the famous image of a house with an equal sign in the middle. The logo is still in use today.

The Office of Policy Development and Research (PD&R) also has a deep connection with fair housing. A question PD&R sought to answer in the 1970s was how to measure the extent of housing discrimination to determine whether the Fair Housing Act was addressing the problem. To help answer this question, PD&R established a challenge and asked researchers from across the country to offer methods to measure housing discrimination. The researchers suggested a number of approaches. In the end, the most promising methodology was to modify the enforcement technique of paired testing so that it could be used for research. This technique has equally qualified prospective renters or homebuyers — one white client and one minority client — ask a housing provider about the same unit and record what happens. We have used this methodology since 1977.

It is telling that I still recall an issue of Cityscape,now 20 years old, that was guest-edited by John Goering and Gregory Squires marking the 30th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act. This issue of Cityscape was notable for describing the history of the act as told through articles by authors from both sides of the aisle, one by Senator Edward Kennedy and the other by Senator Charles McCurdy Mathias, Jr., and his colleague Marion Morris. I recommend taking a moment to read these articles and remember how hard it was to pass the Fair Housing Act.

Image of the Equal Housing Opportunity logo.

More recently, the November 2015 issue of Cityscape guest-edited by Judson James and Margery Austin Turner provides a comprehensive history of Housing Discrimination Study (HDS) research and how paired testing research is different from paired testing for fair housing enforcement. The article by Sun Jung Oh and John Yinger summarizes the results from the major HDS research sponsored by PD&R in 1977, 1989, 2000, and 2012 and tells a compelling story about trends in housing discrimination.

The Oh and Yinger article shows that African Americans have experienced a dramatic reduction in “door slamming” — that is, being denied a unit at time of inquiry based on race. The most conservative measure of discrimination, the net measure, saw a steady decrease in the percentage of incidents in which the white tester was told that a unit was available while their paired African-American tester was told that the same unit was not available, declining from 19 percent of tests in 1977 to 7 percent of tests in 1989, 4 percent of tests in 2000, and 0 percent of tests in 2012. This is a sign of significant progress.

Unfortunately, these findings do not mean that discrimination in housing no longer exists. For example, African-American renters continue to be shown fewer units relative to white renters at about the same rate today as in 1977.

PD&R continues to conduct extensive research on fair housing, and our most recent fair housing research reports include the following:

Additional research from PD&R on fair housing is available here. I encourage you to explore this research and learn more about PD&R’s fair housing legacy.