Last week, Pope Francis made his historic first visit ever to the United States and our fair city of Manhattan.  Perhaps one of the most accessible spiritual leaders of our time, tens of thousands of New Yorkers saw him during his parade through Central park, visit to Ground Zero, mass at Madison Square garden, and the many smaller events held during his visit.  Those of us who did not get a chance to meet the Pontificus in person, felt his presence not only through inevitable grid-locking in the city, but through something else- a very rare and special shift in our collective consciousness.   The city that never sleeps and bustles and hustles with millions willing to do whatever it takes to get ahead, for a brief moment, turned its focus to the greater good and the value of love and inclusion.  It is in this spirit that we reflect on the ethics and fairness of our housing industry.  How far has the housing industry come in offering equal opportunity to all and what remains to be improved? 

Before the Fair Housing Act of 1968:

Before the Fair Housing Act of 1968, explicit discrimination ran rampant in the housing industry.  Banks, real estate agents, and landlords regularly engaged in practices that denied funds and housing opportunities to minority groups, the most notorious and widespread being redlining, steering, and block-busting.   Such complete institutionalized discrimination worsened segregation and has had widespread and drastic effects on the socio-economic well-being of those discriminated against.  Housing touches every aspect of our lives, affecting the schools our children attend, the jobs within reach, and the hospitals, parks and public services available to us.  During the height of the Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King knew that housing desegregation was a key battle that must be won.

Fair Housing Act of 1968:

Seven days after Martin Luther King’s assassination, amidst widespread riots, Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the last piece of legislation in the Civil Rights Act. Born from their fraught partnership and years of persistence, it marked the single greatest milestone in the fight towards fairness and inclusion in the housing industry.

With its passing, this explicit discrimination finally became illegal.  It was no longer legal for banks to redline areas predominately inhabited by minorities to deny funding to them, Realtors could not steer people to specific areas based on their protected class, and landlords could not deny tenant applicants simply based on someone’s race, color, religion, national origin, or age.  Through future amendments, the state of New York expanded these protections to people based on their sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, familial status, lawful source of income or occupation, and pregnancy.  Furthermore, the Fair Housing Act could be enforced based on proving a disparate impact on a protected class meaning that it did not matter if a bank or real estate agent intended to discriminate based on status in a protected class, only that this was the effect of their actions.  However, even with this interpretation, the Fair Housing Act’s effectiveness relies heavily on its enforcement.

Where we are today:

While progress has been made, housing throughout the country is still deeply segregated.  According to a Brown University study in 2010, over 90% of the black and Latino population would need to move to create truly racially balanced communities.  Also, the Fair Housing Act did not bring an end to discrimination but instead changed its form.  While explicit discrimination is much more rare, new and more subtle forms have arisen.  While banks may not outright deny funding to areas they have redlined, they have still been found to offer higher interest rates to different neighborhoods.  What’s more, the Fair Housing Act is only effective when enforced.  With this in mind, the Obama administration announced new rules in July to foster integration on a community level. 

In New York City, special tax abatements have successfully incentivized many new developments to allocate some units to low-income housing.  However, to presumably prevent the “haves” from having to see the “have-nots”, plans for many included separate entrances, or “Poor Doors” for those in low income housing units.  This policy may not directly violate the Fair Housing Act but it certainly is not in the spirit of equality.  We cannot help but guess that Pope Francis, the first Pope to wash the feet of women alongside men in the traditional reenactment of washing the feet of the 12 apostles, would certainly not approve.  Fortunately, such plans were struck down through an addition made in a rent-regulation bill that "Affordable units shall share the same common entrances and common areas as market rate units."  

At Bracha New York, we are happy to see progress continue in the direction towards equality, integration, and fair housing opportunities for all.  In facing the future, we contemplate what else can be done and what will be the next great battle for housing equality and fairness? 

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