Dear America, it’s time to fulfill the promises of the Fair Housing Act

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

April is National Fair Housing Month, and as the month comes to a close, it is important that we reflect on the work that remains to ensure fair housing for all. This is even more important as we continue to stare down a worsening housing and homelessness crisis that disproportionately affects people of color, families with children, women, people with disabilities and other members of protected classes. To truly achieve the promise of fair housing, we must make equitable, long-overdue investments in housing and community development.

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act into law on April 11, 1968, just one week after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The country was still reeling from this incalculable loss. Only two years prior, Dr. King had founded the Chicago Freedom Movement to fight against housing and economic inequity. It was this movement work that led to the passage and then the enactment of the Fair Housing Act.

The Fair Housing Act, as amended, prohibits discrimination based on race, color, sex (including sexual orientation and gender identity), national origin, religion, disability and familial status. Unfortunately, as a nation, because we have failed to fully fund and enforce this law, systemic and overt discrimination and inequality continue to plague every facet of American life.

The passage of the Fair Housing Act also came after President Johnson formed the famous Kerner Commission to investigate the impetus of race riots that erupted across the nation in 1967. The commission’s report confirmed that housing discrimination and institutionalized racism were sparking racial tension and contributing to “two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” The commission made several key recommendations on housing, including significantly increasing the supply of affordable housing for low-income families and opening access to white neighborhoods to people of all races, which we have yet to achieve. It’s no surprise that ongoing housing discrimination and unequal community development remain at the heart of many racial and economic injustices in America.

Over the years, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and local fair housing organizations have received record-breaking levels of reported housing discrimination complaints each year, including over 33,000 in 2022 alone.  However, we know that discrimination goes woefully underreported. In 2018, at least 1 in 4 people, or 68 million, believed they had been treated differently in their search for housing because of their status as a member of a protected class under the Fair Housing Act.

Other barriers, such as redlining, exclusionary zoning and land use ordinances, continue to lock members of protected classes out of equitable housing opportunities. Many communities across the country are also more segregated today than they were in 1990, which further entrenches poverty and wealth and homeownership gaps across racial and ethnic lines. Indeed, Black and Latinx renters are twice as likely to face eviction compared to white renters and are overrepresented among the homeless population. Our nation also faces widening racial wealth and homeownership gaps with the average net worth of homeowners — who are more likely to be white — 40 times greater than that of renters. Meanwhile, for people with disabilities, integrated and accessible housing opportunities are severely limited, with data showing that less than 1% of homes in the U.S. are wheelchair accessible and just 5% are accessible to people with moderate disabilities. We have even seen some local governments continue to use federal housing and community funds in discriminatory ways that violate the Fair Housing Act.

While the Fair Housing Act has no doubt expanded housing and economic opportunity for millions of families across the U.S., President Johnson said it best himself, “We have come some of the way, not near all of it. There is much yet to do.” That’s why I continue to work closely with my colleagues in the House to fight for historic investments to make this a reality. While Democrats secured over $20 million in investments for fair housing enforcement through the American Rescue Plan Act, much more is needed.

Last year, I reintroduced my historic housing package to continue building on our efforts, including the “Housing Crisis Response Act,” the “Ending Homelessness Act,” and the “Downpayment Toward Equity Act.” Together, these bills represent the single largest and most comprehensive investment in fair and affordable housing in U.S. history. I call on our nation’s leaders to work with me to help deliver on the urgent need to end the U.S. housing crisis and fulfill the promise of fair housing for all.

Congresswoman Maxine Waters represents the 43rd Congressional District of California and serves as the top Democrat on the House Financial Services Committee. Before then, she made history as the first woman and first African American to Chair the House Financial Services Committee. Throughout her more than 40 years of public service, Congresswoman Waters has led the effort in Congress to create a strong, inclusive financial system and combat the nation’s worsening housing and homelessness crisis.

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