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How Housing Discrimination Continues to Impact Marginalized Groups in the U.S.
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Despite being prohibited, housing discrimination continues to challenge marginalized groups in the U.S. According to the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA), our nation’s Black homeownership rate was the same in 2020 as when the discriminatory practice of redlining was legal, and the country is more segregated than it was 100 years ago. The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) links the lasting effects of housing discrimination to the fact that the median white American family has twelve times the wealth than that of their Black counterparts.
It’s necessary to take stock of how far housing policy has gone to outlaw discriminatory practices and what work remains to be finished.
What is housing discrimination?
Housing discrimination is when a person or people are discouraged from or denied the opportunity to rent, purchase or occupy housing based on aspects of who they are — such as their ethnicity or a disability — rather than their ability to afford the housing.
This practice in the U.S. comes from the era of segregation, when landowners created rules to prevent former slaves from living in their communities. In 1968, Congress passed the Fair Housing Act, making it illegal to do anything but offer fair and equal treatment to people financing, buying or renting real estate. Yet there are still active cases of housing discrimination well into the 2020s.
Examples of housing discrimination
Here are a few examples of housing discrimination cases that went to court. You can also read hypothetical examples of discrimination from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
Rental unit availability. Alexander v. Riga (3rd Cir.). In Pittsburgh, a federal court jury found that the defendant discriminated against a Black couple by lying about the availability of a rental unit.
Mortgage lending approval. Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) & United States v. National City Bank (W.D. Pa.). The bank allegedly practiced discrimination in residential mortgage lending on the basis of race and national origin. The bank was ordered to pay $35 million to its victims.
Reasonable accommodation. Calvillo, et al. v. Baywood Equities, L.P., et al. The owners and managers of Baywood Apartments in Petaluma, Calif., paid $32,500 to settle a claim that they discriminated on the basis of disability when they denied the “request for a reasonable accommodation” for an emotional support animal.
Whom do housing discrimination laws protect?
Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies highlights how fundamental affordable, good-quality housing is to health and well-being. HUD states that the Fair Housing Act prohibits housing discrimination on the basis of:
- National origin
- Sex (including gender identity and sexual orientation)
- Familial status
The Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA), which Congress passed in 1974, is related in that it makes it illegal for creditors — such as mortgage lenders — to discriminate based on all of the above characteristics, plus:
- Marital status
- Receiving money from public assistance
What types of housing are covered?
The federal Fair Housing Act covers most housing, including apartments, mobile homes, condominiums and houses that are rented or sold with the use of an agent.
The exceptions (in limited circumstances) are single-family houses sold or rented without the use of an agent, owner-occupied buildings with no more than four units and housing operated by religious organizations and private clubs that limit occupancy to members.
How can you fight back?
If you believe you’ve recently experienced housing discrimination, you can file a complaint directly with HUD, reach out to your local housing counseling agency or contact your state’s housing discrimination agency.
Many states have their own agencies to counter housing discrimination, including California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing, the Oregon Civil Rights Division and the Texas Workforce Commission Civil Rights Division.
If you think that your mortgage lender discriminated against you, another resource is the CFPB, which often tackles issues of credit discrimination.
3 ways to strengthen U.S. housing discrimination laws
Proving that the letter of the law was broken on a case-by-case basis can be difficult, time consuming and financially costly, and it may require an effort that many consumers would rather put into finding and securing another housing option.
To fight housing discrimination before it happens, here are three ways organizations are working to bring awareness to the issue and change policy to challenge ongoing practices:
- Remove appraisal biases. Brookings, a nonprofit public policy research organization, found that Black neighborhoods had consistently lower appraisal values than what could be explained by physical characteristics and amenities. Home appraisal bias is the practice of tying a home’s value to the ethnic makeup of the neighborhood surrounding it. In 2021, HUD, Fannie Mae and the Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice (USPAP) issued strong guidance on how appraisers can avoid bias.
- Increase access to credit. The CFPB sent a letter in March 2022 reminding financial institutions that they can establish special purpose credit programs (SPCPs) for economically or socially disadvantaged consumers. According to the NFHA, Black applicants are denied for mortgage loans at almost twice the rate of white applicants.
- Maintain federal protections. Under the Fair Housing Act, HUD had a 2013 rule that said a policy is discriminatory if its effects are discriminatory — no matter the policy’s intention. A 2020 court decision amended this rule, adding elements such as new proof requirements. In 2021 HUD began the process to revert the rule.
- Here are legal resources listed by state
- Here’s information about legal aid eligibility
- Here’s how to find your state attorney general’s office
- The CFPB provides consumer education across financial topics
- Here is HUD’s overview on the Fair Housing Act
- For data and policy studies, here is Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies and the Brookings Institution