April is national Fair Housing Month, which honors the legacy of The 1968 Civil Rights Act passed the same month only a week after the murder of MLK. While the act prohibited housing discrimination, it also required HUD and local governments to take proactive steps to restore communities from the harm of segregation. Unfortunately, it would take another 47 years for the federal government to promulgate a rule sufficient to clarify and compel enforcement of this mandate for proactive restoration only to have it suspended five years later and most recently restored. The City of Chicago showed its intention to lead on this issue with the release of its Blueprint for Fair Housing. The best way to honor the legacy of Fair Housing Month is for other local governments to follow suit.
April 11, 2022 marks 54 years since the signing of The Civil Rights Act of 1968, otherwise known as the Fair Housing Act. In response to the popular uprisings following the assassination of Martin Luther King just one week earlier in Tennessee, the law was signed amid. His name is sacred, as are all the names of the countless unarmed Black men and women who have been murdered over the past six centuries, stemming from racist oppression in the United States. The Fair Housing Act protects people from discrimination when they are renting or buying a home, getting a mortgage, seeking housing assistance, or engaging in other housing-related activities. The Act takes this one step further, not only prohibiting criminal discrimination but also requiring the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), its delegates, and those who receive HUD funding to take affirmative actions to overcome segregation, promote fair housing choice, foster inclusive communities, and restore communities that have been most impacted by segregation.
For decades, HUD’s rules and enforcement of this “affirmatively furthering” mandate were squishy at best. Local governments that receive HUD funding through Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), HOME Investment Partnerships Program (HOME), and Emergency Solutions Grant (ESG) funds, as well as all Public Housing Authorities (PHA) were required to submit rubber-stamp “plans” on an irregular basis, analyzing problems and recommending solutions to which the recipients were loosely/sometimes held accountable. Advocates, community leaders, and even the consultants who developed those plans pushed the Department to strengthen its regulation to no avail. In the mid-aughts, as the early signs of the foreclosure crisis began to hint at the coming recession, at least one legal challenge in Westchester County, NY finally began to force the sluggish federal apparatus in the right direction. Although, it would take until 2015 for the Supreme Court to uphold the illegality of unintentional segregation.
The Obama Administration rightly seized upon this moment in its second term, promulgating a rulemaking process to clarify the meaning of “affirmatively furthering fair housing choice,” setting up structures and processes for compliance, and making enforcement an imperative. Local partner, Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance (CAFHA), its members, and MPC were among many advocates who engaged with HUD through comment and discussion to help make sure the new rule would represent real progress. Many gray-haired housing wonks in the region, humbly including myself, will recall this time with reverence. It felt like we were part of real change. And I think we really were. Then MPC VP, now Chicago Housing Commissioner Marissa Novara was in the room when Julian Castro announced the final rule in July of 2015.
In 2019, eighteen local governments and public housing agencies formed the Cook County Assessment of Fair Housing (AFH) Collaborative, making a groundbreaking commitment in pursuit of a regional assessment of fair housing together. Their process, guided by the AFFH rule, proposed to identify individual as well as shared commitments held by all the participating jurisdictions. It was another sign of progress to envision a shared understanding of the fair housing crisis that continues to plague the third largest county in the country as well as a united governmental front for enforcement. CAFHA, MPC, and Enterprise Community Partners teamed up to support the process with community engagement, data analysis, facilitation, project management, and drafting.
Just one year later, three short months into a raging global pandemic that would destabilize the housing market, and one month after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, the 45th presidential administration took steps to eliminate the same rule. In a tweet, the sitting president said, “people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream” would “no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low-income housing built in your neighborhood.” Not only did this comment belie the true intent of the 2015 AFFH rule, which was to provide a greater range of choice to people who had systematically been excluded from free housing choice, but it sought to create fear among an influential voting block in the wake of civil unrest inspired by the murder of George Floyd. It was intended to reverse hard-won progress in the march toward racial equity.
Back in Cook County, the Collaborative was forced to slow its progress toward the creation of a regional AFH to address the urgent needs of the pandemic, plus, the diminishing political will to charge forward in the face of the AFFH rule suspension. Cook County and the City of Chicago, both Collaborative members, became deeply engaged in the delivery of emergency rental subsidies to prevent a debilitating wave of evictions. Ironically, these subsidies have become a fair housing issue, as some landlords refuse to accept subsidy payments in-lieu of rent. Previously, the City of Chicago and Cook County passed legislation protecting people who use public housing subsidies as a source of income for housing payments. Thanks to the hard work of advocates, Illinois Coalition for Fair Housing and leadership of Rep La Shawn K Ford and Sen Ram Villivalam, Illinois HB27755 passed through the House Thursday and will extend the same protection to the entire state upon signature by Governor JB Pritzker. MPC and CAFHA are both in support of the legislation and are calling on our allies to do the same.
In February, the City of Chicago continued to position itself at the forefront of this issue, releasing its Blueprint for Fair Housing which outlines eight strategies:
- Increase and preserve affordable, accessible housing options
- Prevent involuntary displacement and stabilize neighborhoods
- Increase opportunities and community integration for people with disabilities
- Address the segregation of opportunity and related inequitable distribution of resources
- Enhance housing policies and programs to increase fair housing choice
- Expand fair housing outreach, education, and enforcement
- Preserve existing and expand affordable homeownership
- Ensure that internal policies and practices advance equity and address the history of structural racism
President Biden partially reinstated the AFFH rule in June of 2021 and advocates across the country anticipate its full restoration by the end of this year. It is now up to government leaders to fully uphold the spirit of the rule as we recover from the pandemic, implement fair housing strategies, and dole out recovery dollars to individuals and communities most in need. Indeed, these are mutually reinforcing tasks. This means reactivating the Collaborative to complete the Regional AFH, so that Cook County’s suburban communities can benefit from fair housing strategies as robust as the Blueprint demonstrates for the City. MPC and our allies must continue to provide support and hold leaders accountable for this essential commitment.