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.”
The Fair Housing Act was to remedy the legacy of racial discrimination and housing segregation by wielding government dollars in the pursuit of integrated affordable housing while denying funds to cities that refused a civil rights agenda.
For a moment it appeared this might actually happen, under the unlikely stewardship of Nixon’s HUD Secretary, George Romney. Early on, Romney threatened to withhold federal dollars from a Michigan city that refused to build affordable housing.
But as Romney pushed forward with the plan, Nixon’s team of inside hit men spotted an affront to their Southern Strategy. Nixon ordered Romney to release the HUD money despite the city’s failure to integrate, breaking the stick in half and burning it in an ideological blaze.
Nixon declared that the government would not enforce the “affirmatively further” aspect of the law because “forced integration” was just as wrong as legal segregation. He knew what his decision meant for the nation.
“I realize that this position will lead us to a situation in which blacks will continue to live for the most part in black neighborhoods and where there will be predominately black schools and predominately white schools,” he wrote.
Nixon’s position has become the mainstream. Since 1974, while the civil rights enforcement office of HUD remained underfunded and maligned, the agency focused wholly on funneling billions of dollars into the creation of new housing.
HUD did not withhold a block grant from a single community between 1974 and 1983… As best as can be determined from interviews with longtime staff, HUD secretaries used their new powers twice from 1988 to the present.
Though Clinton and Obama promised change, there’s little to show for it. The Obama administration told Congress that it would release regulations requiring HUD recipients to “promote integration.” Two years later, no regulations have been released.
Now, it’s not just the stick that’s at risk of disappearing. In an ironic twist, Mitt Romney has threatened to disband with HUD altogether.
“I’m going to take a lot of departments in Washington, and agencies, and combine them,” Romney said. “Things like Housing and Urban Development, which my dad was head of, that might not be around later.”