Point of View: Dissatisfied – by NLIHC President and CEO Diane Yentel

Yesterday we as a nation honored Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. As I do every year, I reflected on his work, his words, and what they require of us. What better way to honor Dr. King than continuing his work to achieve housing justice? Dr. King spent his final years fighting for fair housing before his assassination in 1968. To honor his legacy, we must continue the fight in 2020.

Dr. King led the Chicago Freedom Movement, also known as the open housing movement, in 1966. His objective was “to bring about the unconditional surrender of forces dedicated to the creation and maintenance of slums and ultimately make slums a moral and financial liability upon the whole community.” On July 10, 1966, Freedom Sunday, Dr. King gave a speech in Chicago’s Soldier Field, saying, “Now is the time to get rid of the slums and ghettos of Chicago. Now is the time to make justice a reality all over this nation.” After the speech, he marched to City Hall with his demands for Chicago Mayor Daley; they included fair housing, fair wages, and an end to police brutality.

After several subsequent marches into white neighborhoods were met with violence, including one when Dr. King was hit in the head by a brick thrown by someone in the crowd, Mayor Daley was ready to negotiate. Dr. King, Mayor Daley, the head of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) and others came to an agreement for the CHA to build thousands of new public housing units, and some mortgage bankers agreed to make mortgages available to black homebuyers. At the time, Dr. King called the agreement, “the most significant program every conceived to make open housing a reality.” Still, he recognized that it was merely “the first step in a 1,000 mile journey.”

By March of 1967, the City had done nothing to honor the agreement. To Dr. King, “it appeared that, for all intents and purposes, the public agencies had reneged on the agreement and had in fact given credence to [those] who proclaimed the housing agreement a shame and a batch of false promises.” In one of Dr. King’s final speeches, he said, “Now the problem of transforming the ghetto is a problem of power, a confrontation between the forces of power demanding change and the forces of power dedicated to the preserving of the status quo.” In 1968, one week after Dr. King’s assassination, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, including the Fair Housing Act, into law.

Since that time, the housing plight of black Americans has in some ways worsened. The housing crisis and its disproportionate harm to low-income people of color has grown, the yawning racial wealth gap has widened, and black homeownership has declined to levels below when discrimination was legal. Today’s segregated communities are a result of decades of racist federal, state and local housing policies. For most of the 20th century, people of color were denied the federal resources created to help white families become homeowners and build wealth. Redlining forced black households to live in areas of concentrated poverty, cutting them off from the opportunities white households had to build wealth.

More than 14 million people live in high-poverty communities today, and the numbers are rising, more than doubling since 2000. The effects are felt most profoundly within communities of color. One in every four black Americans and one in every seven Latino Americans lives in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, compared to just one in every thirteen white Americans.

Housing justice and racial justice are inextricably linked. Today’s housing crisis does disproportionate harm to black and brown people. Most severely cost-burdened and deeply poor renters are people of color, the result of decades of discrimination and racist policies. The promise and obligations of Dr. King’s legacy law, the Fair Housing Act, are more important and urgent than ever. 

But this administration seeks only to undermine the Fair Housing Act. Since his earliest months as a member of Donald Trump’s cabinet, HUD Secretary Ben Carson has slowed or stopped most high-priority fair housing investigations and enforcement. He considered removing from HUD’s mission statement references to promoting “inclusive communities” that are “free from discrimination.” After the city of Houston violated federal law by perpetuating racial segregation, Secretary Carson let the city off the hook by agreeing to a weak, largely unenforceable settlement. Early on in his tenure, a court had to intervene to prevent Secretary Carson from reversing policies to make it easier for low-income families to move out of high-poverty neighborhoods. He is attempting to revise HUD’s disparate impact rule, potentially weakening a powerful tool to protect people and communities from discriminatory practices.

Now, Secretary Carson wants to gut the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) regulation, which helps communities recognize and address barriers to fair housing. The rule, developed under the Obama Administration after five years of exhaustive outreach and input, was HUD’s strongest effort in decades to reverse harmful patterns of segregation and discriminatory practices in communities across the country.

Secretary’s Carson’s proposed replacement for the AFFH rule is a complete retreat from efforts to undo historic, government-driven patterns of housing discrimination and segregation throughout the U.S. The proposal is further evidence of Secretary Carson’s fundamental misunderstanding of the Fair Housing Act and his willful ignorance of the racist housing policies that created segregated communities. His proposal absurdly ignores race, segregation, and housing discrimination and incorrectly equates increased housing supply with fair housing choice. The proposal will not promote fair housing or affordable housing goals, and it attacks protections for tenants, workers, and the environment.

The federal government has an essential role in advancing fair access to housing, especially in communities with long histories of racist and discriminatory housing policies and practices. Secretary Carson must work to vigorously enforce the country’s obligation to further fair housing, and we must honor MLK’s legacy by remaining dissatisfied and active until he does. 

In the words of Dr. King:

“Let us be dissatisfied. Until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort from the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the bettering rams of the forces of justice.

Let us be dissatisfied until those who live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security.

Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family will live in a decent, sanitary home.

Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality integrated education.

Let us be dissatisfied until integration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity...

The road ahead will not always be smooth. There will still be rocky places of frustration and meandering points of bewilderment. There will be inevitable setbacks here and there. And there will be those moments when the buoyancy of hope will be transformed into the fatigue of despair... But difficult and painful as it is, we must walk on in these days ahead with an audacious faith in the future. …[Throughout it all] let us recognize that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Join us in bending the arc as we #FightForHousingJustice: www.fightforhousingjustice.org

In solidarity,