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Birmingham: 50 years after the Fair Housing Act

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Habitat for Humanities gave families something to smile about - a new home - during their annual Home Builders Blitz.(Provided photo)
By William C. Singleton III
For the Birmingham Times

George Munchus and his family arrived in Birmingham in the late 1970s, looking to buy a house within a short commute to the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), where he had secured a teaching job. He found one on the Southside, but there was one catch: the homeowner wouldn’t sell. His realtor told him, “They won’t sell to you because you’re black,” Munchus recalled.

Munchus considered suing the homeowner using the Fair Housing Act, but instead filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department and the FBI. The two federal agencies determined that Munchus had been subject to racial discrimination, but the homeowner had already sold the house.

George Munchus, a founding member of the Fair Housing Center of Northern Alabama’s board. (William C. Singleton III, for The Birmingham Times)

Undeterred, Munchus bought the house next door and became one of the founding board members of the Fair Housing Center for Northern Alabama. Munchus, a professor at the UAB Collat School of Business, still sits on the 12-member board.

For the past 25 years, the Fair Housing Center has helped realtors, landlords, mortgage brokers, tenants, homeowners, and anyone else who provides housing understand fair-housing laws and regulations and has investigated complaints of those who’ve suspected they’ve been discriminated against in securing housing. The law that supports the Center’s mission—the Fair Housing Act of 1968—marks its 50th anniversary this month, and the Birmingham-based center celebrates its 25th anniversary in June.

Through the Fair Housing Act, more Americans have obtained the dream of homeownership in neighborhoods of their choosing. The legislation makes it illegal for housing providers, realtors, mortgage companies, and others to discriminate based on race, color, religion, national origin, or sex. The act was amended in 1988 to prohibit discrimination based on disability and familial status, i.e., families with children younger than 18 and pregnant women.

Currently, however, the administration of President Donald Trump, which includes U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, has alarmed many fair-housing advocates with decisions that appear to weaken the act, such as scaling back enforcement.

“When you talk about fair housing, you’re talking about making certain that any person, regardless of socioeconomic status, has equal access to housing as long as they can afford it,” said Lila Hackett, the Fair Housing Center for Northern Alabama’s (FHCNA) first and only executive director. “It doesn’t matter where the housing is.”

Officials with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) maintain that fair-housing proponents have nothing to worry about.

“Housing is essential to an individual’s safety, well-being, and opportunity,” said Gloria Shanahan, HUD Regional Public Affairs Officer, whose office covers Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. “Fair housing will continue to be a cornerstone of [HUD’s] mission.”

Redlining

Before passage of the Fair Housing Act, housing discrimination was written into city ordinances and neighborhood covenants across the nation. Whites could live wherever they wanted, and they usually chose affluent neighborhoods on the outskirts of cities. Blacks were limited to substandard homes in overcrowded urban areas, even if they had the money to live in upscale communities.

Blacks also had a harder time getting loans to purchase homes, a practice known as redlining. In Birmingham, the booming iron industry brought blacks and whites from across Alabama to the Magic City with hopes of securing their financial future and providing for their families. The mining companies helped perpetuate segregated housing as they built row houses for white workers and separate dwelling areas for blacks.

Although landmark Supreme Court decisions, such as Shelley v. Kraemer in 1948, allowed blacks and other minorities to seek housing in areas once restricted to them, housing discrimination persisted. And despite passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, black and Hispanic veterans returning from the Vietnam War still could not buy houses in certain neighborhoods.

Civil Rights groups lobbied for legislation to specifically address housing discrimination, but it failed to receive House and Senate approval several times prior. In 1968—aided by Massachusetts Sen. Edward Brooke, a Vietnam veteran who spoke passionately about his inability to purchase a home in a neighborhood of his choosing because he was black, and the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a proponent of the fair-housing legislation—President Lyndon B. Johnson convinced Congress to pass the law, commonly known as Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act.

Tools to Work With

Lila Hackett, Executive Director of Fair Housing of Northern Alabama has served in that position since June 1993. (The Birmingham Times / Frank Couch )

HUD is responsible for enforcing fair-housing laws, and it does so with the aid of nationwide centers like the FHCNA, which got its start when HUD began testing for housing discrimination in Alabama, Hackett said.

“HUD contacted some people here locally to do some testing for the Birmingham area, as well as in Huntsville, Tuscaloosa, Anniston, and Gadsden,” she said. “They found a greater percentage of racial discrimination here, so they decided something needed to be done.”

A group in Birmingham had also formed to tackle fair-housing issues.

“They became organized and decided to see if they could seek some money to open a center here,” Hackett said. “They finally contacted the National Fair Housing Alliance [NFHA], which is the umbrella agency for all fair-housing centers across the country. They applied to HUD and got a grant. That’s how we got started.”

Munchus said, “HUD can’t be everywhere, so [it] decided to fund some of these housing centers in cities that historically experienced significant housing discrimination.”

The FHCNA receives funding from HUD and other public and private groups. HUD funds about 85 percent of the center’s nearly $325,000 annual budget. The city of Birmingham has been a consistent contributor to the center’s budget, as well, Hackett said; most recently, the city donated about $100,000 to the center, but the amount varies year to year.

The center covers 29 counties in Alabama, starting from Shelby County and moving north, and fair-housing proponents believe the act has made a dent in rooting out housing discrimination.

“The act has given us tools to work with,” Hackett said.

People who feel like they’ve faced housing discrimination can contact the center and have their claims investigated.

Talking About the Law

Henry Ray, chairman of the Fair Housing Center of Northern Alabama’s board. (William C. Singleton III, for The Birmingham Times)

The FHCNA sponsors seminars and continuing-education classes to explain fair-housing rules and regulations to organizations and groups, said Henry Ray, the Birmingham center’s board chairman.

“Fair housing is serious. We’re not just talking about the good or the moral thing you ought to do,” he said. “We’re talking about the law. Nobody needs to be breaking it.”

On April 5, the group sponsored a seminar-luncheon that highlighted a variety of topics about fair housing at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act. One thing the event pointed out was that the legislation has given those who belong to protected classes—race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, familial status—more hope that their cases will be heard and adjudicated fairly, Munchus said.

“There’s more of an awareness that African-Americans will litigate these cases in the federal courts,” he said. “And there are cases in which we do receive justice.”

Munchus said he believes lending institutions are more willing to approve mortgage loans for blacks now, compared with 50 years ago: “There’s probably not as much redlining as there had been in the past.”

The Next 50 Years

Still, the act hasn’t eradicated housing discrimination.

“It’s just a little different. It’s a lot more sophisticated,” Hackett said. “When you go to rent an apartment or buy a house, they don’t say whites only or blacks only anymore. There are ways around saying it because they can find other reasons to not rent to you. They can simply say there are no apartments available, or they can use background checks or criminal background checks against you.”

When the FHCNA comes across cases of alleged discrimination that it can’t verify, it employs “testers” to determine if the reason for denying housing is a legitimate claim, Hackett said.

Munchus and other fair-housing advocates caution that while improvements have been made, there is much more to be done.

“It seems like there’s still an unwillingness to lend money to black communities that are trying to improve and increase their property values,” he said. “The perception [by lending institutions] is, ‘We’re not going to lend money to an area that appears to be on a decline.’”

If the elimination of housing discrimination is to progress into the next 50 years, there will have to be a stronger push via the courts, some say.

“When you find discrimination in lending institutions, you can always bring cases against them,” Hackett said. “This normally will resolve some of the issues.”

She noted that lawsuits filed by the NFHA against major lending institutions have “lessened some of the discrimination in lending.”

“As a result of some of these lawsuits, doors have opened for minorities because money has been set aside for low- to moderate-income persons for home repairs or to help make homes accessible for the elderly and people with disabilities,” Hackett added.

Others see hope in the attitudes and values of the next generation.

“The millennials coming through now are more attuned to the equality of people than when I was growing up,” Ray, 74, said. “Younger people are much more offended when fair housing becomes an issue for anybody. … Their attitude is that fair housing now is the way life is and the way life should be.”