The Fair Housing Act
Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, commonly referred to as the Fair Housing Act, was passed on April 11, 1968. The legislation was pending in Congress for several years when the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. motivated Congress to approve enact the law seven days after his death. The Fair Housing Act of 1968, as amended in 1988 (42 U.S.C. 3601 et seq.), the Civil Rights Act of 1866 (42 U.S.C. 1981, 1982), and four Supreme Court decisions provide the legal foundation for the fair housing movement. These laws prohibit all race discrimination in housing and provide protection for other groups seeking to rent or buy a home, secure a mortgage loan or purchase homeowner’s insurance.
These laws also protect people from harassment in housing and protect people who help others exercise their freedom to choose the neighborhood where they live.
The federal Fair Housing Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, disability, family status (having children), and/or national origin. These bases of protection are commonly referred to as protected classes.
The federal Fair Housing Act enumerates a number of actions and practices that are illegal when found to discriminate or cause discrimination against a member of a protected class. It is illegal to:
- Refuse to sell or rent a property to a person because of his/her membership in a protected class;
- Discriminate in the terms, conditions and/or privileges of sale or rental because of membership in a protected class;
- Discriminate in advertising, specifically to make, print, publish, or cause to be made, published or printed, any notice, statement or advertisement that indicates any preference, limitation, or discrimination because of membership in a protected class;
- Misrepresent the availability of housing because of a person’s membership in a protected class;
- Engage in blockbusting or steering. Blockbusting is designed to induce panic in a neighborhood by telling a homogeneous group in a community that others like them are leaving because a group of people representing a protected class are moving into the neighborhood and thereby changing or destroying the neighborhood and community. Steering occurs when housing providers direct renters or buyers to a certain neighborhood because of their protected class status;
- Refuse to accommodate people with disabilities by allowing them to make reasonable modifications to housing;
- Discriminate in making loans for real estate transactions including purchasing, constructing, improving, repairing and/or maintaining a dwelling; and
- To coerce, intimidate, threaten, or interfere with any person in the exercise or enjoyment of a fair housing right or any person who has aided or encouraged any other person in the exercise or enjoyment of a fair housing right.
The Civil Rights Act of 1866 gave Black citizens the same rights as White citizens to inherit, sell, lease, hold, and convey real land and personal property. The Law of 1866 was reaffirmed by the Supreme Court in 1968 in Jones v. Mayer (392 U.S. 409). In Trafficante v. Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. et al, (409 U.S. 205, 1972), the Court determined that White tenants of an apartment complex had standing to sue the complex for discriminating against non-Whites. The Court found that the White tenants were aggrieved persons under the Fair Housing Act because they were being denied the social benefits and opportunities that come with living in an integrated community. The Supreme Court considered the issue of real estate professionals steering prospective homebuyers to different neighborhoods on the basis of race in Gladstone Realtors v. Village of Bellwood (441 U.S. 91, 1979). The Court found that steering on the basis of race is illegal. The Court granted standing to sue to the Village of Bellwood and its residents based on the fact that having been deprived of the social and professional benefits of living in an integrated society [were] sufficient injury allegations in fair housing cases.
In 1982, the Supreme Court considered Havens v. Coleman (455 U.S. 363). The case was an important landmark for fair housing advocates as the Court gave a seal of approval to “testing” and determined that testers have standing to sue. Further, the court determined that fair housing centers also have standing to sue when the discriminatory actions of a defendant impair the center’s activities.
Considering that many states and cities have fair housing laws and that lower courts have made many other rulings important to fair housing, this is by no means an exhaustive explanation of fair housing laws. But it does provide the basic overview necessary to understand how housing discrimination threatens equal-housing opportunity and freedom of choice in New Jersey.
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