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The History of the Fair Housing Act

Lyndon Baines Johnson signing Civil Rights Bill, including Fair Housing Act, April 11, 1968

The month of April is designated as Fair Housing Month, to commemorate Congress passing the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which includes the Fair Housing Act. The multifamily industry knows the importance of complying with Fair Housing rules, spending considerable time, resources, and money to ensure compliance across all aspects of rental housing.

Yet, few may realize that the Fair Housing Act (FHA) fought an uphill battle before being passed and that the early days of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) were not without controversy. Both overcame numerous hurdles in the civil rights era of the 1960s to form the groundwork for today’s critically important multifamily housing policies that prohibit discrimination.

The History of the Fair Housing Act

The beginning of the FHA ultimately rests with the formation of HUD, a Cabinet-level agency created in 1965. President John F. Kennedy proposed the agency in 1961 to restructure U.S. housing policies that dated to the 1937 U.S. Housing Act, and waged battles with Republicans and Southern Democrats who opposed the formation of an agency.

It wasn’t until after his assassination that Congress approved the plan. President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill to form HUD with Robert C. Weaver, the first African-American to be appointed to a Cabinet position, at the helm. A Harvard scholar and former vice chairman of the New York City Housing and Redevelopment Board, Weaver was administrator of the Housing and Home Finance Administration (HHFA).

With HUD under way, the administration sought a law that would prohibit discrimination in the sale and rental of housing in the U.S. The landmark Supreme Court case of Shelley vs. Kraemer in 1948 had ruled that courts could not enforce racial covenants in land deeds, but discriminatory housing practices still abounded.

In 1966, almost two years to the day before the FHA was passed, President Johnson summoned a distinguished group of civil rights advocates into the Cabinet Room of the White House to address the country’s discrimination in the sale and rental of housing. At the time, the families of African American and Hispanic infantrymen killed in the Vietnam War could not purchase homes in some neighborhoods because of their ethnic origins.

The group helped Johnson sign a message to Congress calling for the enactment of the “first federal law against discrimination in the sale and rental of housing the United States of America.” Among those in attendance was civil rights activist Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Congress, however, did not pass the bill, and another attempt in 1967 failed, despite intense lobbying from the NAACP, the GI Forum and National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing. Senators Edward Brooke and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts issued passionate pleas to pass the bill. Brooke even related his own experience of returning from the war and, because of his African-American heritage, being denied housing opportunities.

Finally, after Dr. King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, Johnson convinced Congress to approve the bill, also known as the Civil Rights Act of 1968 or Open Housing Act of 1968. The Act was signed into law seven days later.

During his remarks at the signing, the president presented the new piece of legislation that he once believed would become unchallenged law. “It proclaims that fair housing for all—all human beings who live in this country—is now a part of the American way of life,” he said.

“This afternoon, as we gather here in this historic room in the White House, I think we can all take some heart that democracy’s work is being done. In the Civil Rights Act of 1968 America does move forward and the bell of freedom rings out a little louder.”

The tone of housing’s freedom bell would be muffled at times.

Soon after the federal FHA was enacted, George W. Romney, an automotive executive and the father of candidate for Republican presidential nomination Mitt Romney, was appointed by President Richard M. Nixon as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. The elder Romney had successfully campaigned for ratification of a state constitutional provision that prohibited discrimination in housing and took on the arduous task of implementing a new fair housing policy signed into law by the President Lyndon Johnson.

Historical accounts tell us that what followed was a tumultuous four years which included strong opposition to Romney’s desegregated “open housing” attempts and cookie-cutter housing plan, plus scandal and Nixon’s eventual disdain for the man he beat for the 1968 Republican Presidential nomination. Nixon would eventually seek to remove Romney from office.

Despite the drama, Romney would later be known as key figure who strived more than any other federal administrator to achieve suburban integration.  His efforts helped HUD – while armed with the FHA – find an identity in its formative years, something that would not have been possible had the previous administration and the one before it not conquered its own battles.

Today, the FHA resonates much the same as it did in 1968, and has been expanded to prohibit discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of dwellings, and in other housing-related transactions, based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status (including children under the age of 18 living with parents or legal custodians, pregnant women, and people securing custody of children under the age of 18), and handicap (disability). FHA not only applies to conventional housing, but Rural Development and LIHTC as well. Each housing department oversees its own compliance.

An amendment was added in 1974 addressing discrimination of sex, and a comprehensive amendment in 1988 included discrimination against people because of disability and familial status.

HUD continues to enforce the FHA, which is administered by the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO). The FHEO is supported by 10 regions across the country.

In January 2009, Shaun Donovan was sworn in as the 15th United States Secretary for Housing and Urban Development. The former commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), Donovan created largest municipal affordable housing plan in the nation’s history in New York.


Michael Cunningham is the Managing Editor of Property Management Insider.

Image Information: Lyndon Baines Johnson signing Civil Rights Bill, April 11, 1968 (Image Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. U.S. News & World Report Magazine Collection)

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