When President Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act in 1968, a week after the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., he declared that none of the of civil rights bills passed in the preceding decade “is more important than this.”
Johnson’s excitement centered on language requiring federal housing officials “affirmatively further” fair housing, to ban racial discrimination in housing, and end redlining, block busting and forced segregation. Not only did the Fair Housing Act prohibit explicit discrimination. It compelled the government to actively foster integration. The bill created an office of civil rights tasked with withhold Housing and Urban Development grants, a key source of federal dollars, when projects failed to address racial division.
It was a carrot and stick strategy of the highest kind.
But as an investigation released today by ProPublica shows, the enforcement side of the Fair Housing Act has scarcely been utilized in the law’s 44 years in existence. The words “affirmatively further” have never been defined, and efforts to curtail housing segregation have been repeatedly sidelined, undercut and defanged by every administration since Johnson.
“People say integration has failed,” a Clinton administration fair housing official told ProPublica journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones. “It hasn’t failed because it’s never been tried.”