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What Is Fair Housing? – The New York Times


A federal fair-housing law prohibits discrimination in housing based on race, ethnicity, religion and other factors, like gender identity and disability. That applies to any number of scenarios, in which such discrimination has occurred: a homeowner refusing to negotiate a sale; a landlord failing to make repairs; a mortgage lender denying a loan.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act on April 11, 1968, days after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The law, initially focused on racial discrimination, was the linchpin of the broader Civil Rights Act of 1968 and was later expanded to include other factors.

Yet complaints of discrimination remain about everything from prejudiced home appraisals to racial steering. In 2022, there were more than 33,000 fair housing complaints received by organizations across the country.

A three-year investigative project from Newsday, published in 2019, found that Black home buyers experience discrimination with nearly half of the real estate agents and brokers they employ; a multiyear investigation a decade earlier conducted by the National Fair Housing Alliance found that 87 percent of real estate agents participated in racial steering, opting to only show their clients homes in neighborhoods where most of the neighbors were of their same race.

“The way real estate agents engage in housing discrimination has gotten a lot more subtle but it is definitely still existent,” said Lisa Rice, president of the National Fair Housing Alliance. “A lot of real estate agents are very misguided and they’re not pro fair housing in their heart.”

The fair-housing law placed a sweeping prohibition on all acts of discrimination related to the home buying and renting process, making prejudicial treatment based on race, religion or national origin a crime. Violators can be fined tens of thousands of dollars, or more. Gender was added as another protected category in 1974.

Landlords and home sellers who refuse to offer housing to people based on race can be charged civil damages, and real estate agents who assist them can be liable as well.

Yes, and they’re more than 150 years old. The Federal Civil Rights Act of 1866, the first civil rights law in the United States, has prohibited discrimination in housing because of race or color for more than a century. The spread of racist terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan, coupled with the lack of federal penalties for those who violated the act, left it without teeth for more than a century, but today, that early law remains on the books as a foundation.

“The law is very clear,” said Ms. Rice. “You cannot consider a person’s race in any way shape or form in housing.”

There are two entities you can contact: the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and your state or local fair housing organization.

HUD allows anyone who believes they have been a victim of housing discrimination to make a report online, by phone or by snail mail, and its office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity will investigate if they suspect your civil rights could have been violated. The link for reporting can be found here.

All states are required to comply with the federal Fair Housing Act, and most states have their own fair housing laws as well. HUD maintains an online database of state and local Fair Housing Assistance Program offices, and encourages anyone who believes they have been discriminated against in the housing process to also contact the agency in the state where the incident occurred.

Many states and cities also work with local nonprofits and civil rights groups that take fair housing complaints and can help those in need connect with legal counsel. Fair housing organizations often work in tandem with agencies that handle employment discrimination, so don’t be surprised if you are directed to an employment discrimination office while seeking assistance.

Real estate agents are bound not to discriminate with their clients, and they are also required to ensure they aren’t assisting any clients who wish to discriminate, either. So if an agent represents a seller, and that seller refuses to offer their home to a Black person, both the seller and the agent can be held accountable for civil rights violations.

“If you’re a real estate professional and you think there is a potential violation of the law, you need to notify your broker or your boss, and you need to notify the seller involved. You have to let the seller know: This is what the law says and you cannot engage in discrimination,” Ms. Rice said. The agent is further required to inform the seller that they will not represent them if they show discriminatory intent. That can mean firing a client or backing out of a sale.

Agents who work with clients who discriminate can have their real estate licenses revoked by the state real estate commission, and Ms. Rice added that home buyers who believe their agents have acted in a discriminatory way are also encouraged to make a report to the state real estate board in addition to HUD and their local fair housing office.



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