What is Fair Housing?


  • Mia Chapman
April 25, 2024 - (5 min read)

The 1968 Fair Housing Act: Then and Now

In the early 20th century, zoning laws, racially restrictive covenants, residential segregation, and other exclusionary practices divided cities across the United States. Shortly after the end of World War II, this division within cities was exacerbated by the widespread expansion of the federal highway system and the growth of deindustrialization. Also, in the post-war era, the relocation of white Americans from the city to the suburbs — from which many BIPOC residents were barred — only widened the housing opportunity gap between white and BIPOC individuals and families.

Amidst early civil rights victories, the push for fair housing arose in the 1960s as activist groups continued protesting for equal access to economic resources, jobs, housing, education, and public services in Northern cities. In 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. joined local civil rights leaders in Chicago for a major nonviolent demonstration against institutionalized housing discrimination, which helped shine a national spotlight on housing segregation. Feeling the growing pressure and demand for housing equity, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, including Title VIII, or the Fair Housing Act, into law on April 11, 1968, after its passage in Congress.

The Fair Housing Act, as passed in 1968, prohibited discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin.

Source: Congressional Black Caucus Foundation

Despite the major civil rights victory, the law’s limited enforcement provisions made it difficult to combat deeply entrenched discrimination that remained rampant in the housing market; residential segregation and discriminatory practices continued to exist. Since 1968, Black members of Congress led the legislative effort to strengthen the Fair Housing Act by expanding enforcement provisions and protections.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Congressional Black Caucus regularly worked toward amending the Fair Housing Act, ultimately adding sex to the list of protected classes under federal fair housing law through the Community Development Act of 1974.

Source: Housing and Urban Dvelopment (HUD) Exchange

Despite continued efforts by the Congressional Black Caucus and other fair housing advocates, it took until 1988 to make significant amendments to federal fair housing law; the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 added people with physical or mental disabilities and families with children to the list of protected classes.

The Fair Housing Act — as we know it today — prohibits discrimination by direct providers of housing, such as landlords and real estate companies, as well as other entities, such as municipalities, banks or other lending institutions, and homeowners’ insurance companies whose discriminatory practices make housing unavailable to persons because of a list of protected classes. These protected classes include race or color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status, and disability.

Many types of homes and dwellings are covered under federal fair housing law. The types of housing that are covered include apartments, private homes, nursing homes, dormitories, mobile home parks, homeless shelters, and many other dwellings. Since current housing demand encompasses a wide array of needs, it is important that fair housing legislation adequately covers many types of housing options. Discrimination during the rental process, home purchase process, and other housing-related transactions, such as appraisals, homeowners’ insurance, and mortgage lending, are illegal.

Federal, State, and Local Fair Housing Law

Implemented by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Fair Housing Act is a federal law that aims to protect renters and homeowners across the United States. Within HUD, the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO) was established in 1968 to eliminate housing discrimination through the enforcement, administration, development, and public understanding of federal fair housing policies and laws. FHEO is also responsible for investigating fair housing complaints, conducting compliance reviews, ensuring civil rights in HUD programs, and managing fair housing grants.

Although federal fair housing law established a baseline set of rules, many states and local governments have also passed their own fair housing legislation that often expands on federal law. Cities, towns, and villages can add protected classes to expand protections beyond the seven protected classes included in federal law. Such state and local protected classes may include sexual orientation, gender identity, source of income, etc. States and localities that have fair housing laws, which HUD deems to be “substantially equivalent” to federal housing law, are eligible to receive certification from HUD; this certification allows states and localities to receive funding for enforcement efforts under the Federal Fair Housing Assistance Program (FHAP).

How Have Cities Created Fair Housing Opportunities?

Beyond federal fair housing law, there is still a need for expanded protections at the local level. Cities across the country have taken steps toward expanding protects beyond federal fair housing to better protect residents from housing discrimination.

  • Alexandria, Virginia  – The City of Alexandria has developed the Fair Housing Testing Program to ameliorate discriminatory housing practices in real estate sales, lending, and rental housing based on local protected classes. The city’s Office of Housing conducts fair housing testing annually using pairs of trained testers to identify housing discrimination. Since the late 1990s, the Fair Housing Testing Program has recorded a decline in identified discriminatory practices due in part to increased awareness of fair housing laws and city training, education, and enforcement efforts.
  • Rantoul, IL – The Village of Rantoul has created the Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice to further fair housing and eliminate racial and ethnic segregation, illegal physical and other barriers to persons with disabilities, and other discriminatory practices in housing throughout the community. As a direct entitlement recipient of the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG), the village has intended the analysis to serve as a comprehensive review of the Village’s laws and policies with regard to fair housing and how those laws and policies affect fair housing choice. The Analysis of Impediments serves as both a resource to document necessary improvements to further fair housing choice and as a planning tool to guide future initiatives in the village.

Sign Up for NLC’s Newsletters and Stay Connected

About the Author

Mia Chapman

About the Author

Mia Chapman is an intern for Housing and Community Development at the National League of Cities.