Housing and Civil Rights: History and Law

The Fair Housing Act, contained in Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, prohibits discrimination in the sale, financing or rental of housing because of race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, or national origin.

Shortly after the signing of the Voting Rights Act, in the summer of 1965, a riot erupted in the Watts section of Los Angeles over accusations of police brutality against a black motorist. During the next 4 summers, similar riots and unrest broke out in cities throughout the United States. The quest for civil rights had moved out of the South and spread to the rest of the country.

In 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. went to Chicago to lead rallies and protests on a number of civil rights issues. In a report of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in 1959, Chicago had been called “the most residentially segregated large city in the nation.” Soon, the attention of all the civil rights activists in Chicago turned to the issue of fair housing. Black residents of Chicago were squeezed into small areas of the city and were unable to find housing outside of those areas. The civil rights movement began to march into white-only areas of Chicago only to be met by mobs of whites. In July 1966, marchers were attacked with stones and bottles. One march of 350 was met by a mob of 4,000. Finally, at the end of August, city leaders met with Dr. King and agreed to a program of fair housing.

The law first passed in 1968 did not work well. Under the law, the Federal government had a small role in enforcing fair housing laws. In 1988, Congress enacted amendments to the Fair Housing Act that gave the Departments of Justice and Housing and Urban Development a large role in enforcing the law. The Department of Justice litigates Fair Housing cases in court, while the Department of Housing and Urban Development investigates and attempts to resolve complaints of housing discrimination.