Fair Housing Act Outlaws Discrimination in Housing Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Civil Rights Act of 1968 was designed to reduce discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities in the purchasing, renting, and leasing of housing. It also prohibited discriminatory lending practices by financial institutions. The fair housing law, however, did little to alleviate the problem of housing discrimination, as its enforcement provisions were weak.

Summary of Event

Residential segregation Segregation;housing became a staple of American society in the late nineteenth century and continued into the twentieth. It began in southern cities, in compliance with the “Jim Crow” principle of the inappropriateness of close social contact between races. Residential segregation became the vehicle to separate African Americans from whites. It was accomplished through a combination of real estate practices, intimidation, and legal regulations. As African Americans migrated to the North and West, residential segregation spread to those areas as well. Fair Housing Act (1968) Civil Rights Act of 1968 Housing laws Racial and ethnic discrimination;housing Civil rights;United States [kw]Fair Housing Act Outlaws Discrimination in Housing (Apr. 11, 1968) [kw]Housing Act Outlaws Discrimination in Housing, Fair (Apr. 11, 1968) [kw]Discrimination in Housing, Fair Housing Act Outlaws (Apr. 11, 1968) Fair Housing Act (1968) Civil Rights Act of 1968 Housing laws Racial and ethnic discrimination;housing Civil rights;United States [g]North America;Apr. 11, 1968: Fair Housing Act Outlaws Discrimination in Housing[09730] [g]United States;Apr. 11, 1968: Fair Housing Act Outlaws Discrimination in Housing[09730] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Apr. 11, 1968: Fair Housing Act Outlaws Discrimination in Housing[09730] [c]Civil rights and liberties;Apr. 11, 1968: Fair Housing Act Outlaws Discrimination in Housing[09730] [c]Social issues and reform;Apr. 11, 1968: Fair Housing Act Outlaws Discrimination in Housing[09730] Johnson, Lyndon B. [p]Johnson, Lyndon B.;civil rights King, Martin Luther, Jr. [p]King, Martin Luther, Jr.;civil rights legislation Dirksen, Everett

In the North, the real estate industry led in the drive to create segregated housing. Real estate boards adopted regulations prohibiting their members from renting or selling property in predominantly white areas to nonwhites. Members usually complied with the rules, since they could be expelled for noncompliance. Agents steered Asian and African Americans and other racial minorities away from white areas. Violence and harassment were frequently aimed against minorities brave enough to venture into white neighborhoods.

Residential segregation was also institutionalized by law. States, beginning with Virginia in 1912, authorized cities and towns to designate neighborhoods as either black or white. Urban localities enacted ordinances that designated individual blocks as available to only whites or African Americans. Many southern urban areas were already racially integrated, and problems developed in drawing up the necessary laws. Some cities defined the right to a block on the basis of which race constituted the majority. Members of a minority group did not have to move, but no more of its members could move into the block.

In 1917, in Buchanan v. Warley, Buchanan v. Warley (1917) the U.S. Supreme Court Supreme Court, U.S.;segregation Supreme Court, U.S.;property rights prohibited government-mandated residential segregation. It is noteworthy that the Court based its decision in property rights, not civil rights—that is, on the grounds that such ordinances denied owners the prerogative of disposing of their property as they wished. Even after the Buchanan decision, restrictive racial covenants, policies, and practices of real estate organizations perpetuated residential apartheid. Racially restrictive covenants, which were more prevalent in the North than in the South, bound property owners in a particular neighborhood to sell only to other “members of the Caucasian race.” In Corrigan v. Buckly (1926) Corrigan v. Buckly (1926) , the Supreme Court ruled that such covenants constituted private agreements and therefore were not prohibited by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Two decades later, in Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) Shelley v. Kraemer (1948) , the Court, in a unanimous opinion, ruled that even though restrictive covenants were private agreements, enforcement of them through the use of state courts constituted state action and therefore violated the Fourteenth Amendment. In a companion decision, Hurd v. Hodge (1948) Hurd v. Hodge (1948) , the Court held that judicial enforcement of restrictive covenants in the District of Columbia violated the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and was also inconsistent with the public policy of the United States.

Actions by the real estate industry after those decisions illustrated the entrenched nature of racial exclusion in housing. In 1924, the National Association of Real Estate Boards National Association of Real Estate Boards (NAREB) revised article 34 of its official code of ethics to forbid Realtors from assisting sales to members of any race or nationality or to any individual “whose presence will be detrimental to property values” of a given neighborhood. Shortly after the Kraemer and Hurd decisions, a NAREB leader expressed doubt whether those Supreme Court decisions would “mitigate in any way against the efficacy of Article 34.” Although NAREB and most local real estate organizations eliminated mention of race from their codes during the 1960’s, Realtors resorted to the clandestine exclusion of cultural and racial minorities.

During President John F. Kennedy’s administration, those regulations that authorized residential segregation in federally funded housing were removed, and many municipalities adopted open housing laws. Even then, there was very little movement toward housing desegregation. Real estate agents continued to steer whites to predominantly white neighborhoods and African Americans to black neighborhoods. Financial institutions continued to discriminate in providing mortgages to minorities.

Martin Luther King, Jr., and President Lyndon B. Johnson attend a White House meeting on civil rights on March 18, 1966.

(Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum)

Because residential segregation contributed to school segregation and kept African Americans and Latinos in economically depressed neighborhoods, a strong federal fair housing law became an urgent priority for civil rights leaders. In 1966, as Martin Luther King, Jr., campaigned against segregation in the Chicago area, President Lyndon B. Johnson proposed a fair housing law. It presented a dilemma for liberals. The coalition that had successfully steered major civil rights legislation through Congress in 1964 and 1965 fractured. Fearful of “white backlash,” northern liberals were unwilling to act against discriminatory practices. A badly divided House of Representatives passed an open housing bill in 1966. Support by some Republicans ensured its passage, even though the House Republican leadership, including minority leader Gerald R. Ford Ford, Gerald R. , opposed it. The bill died in the Senate. The next year, the House passed the Civil Rights Bill of 1967, proposed by Johnson largely to protect civil rights workers and to reduce discrimination in jury selection.

This bill became the Civil Rights Act of 1968. The Senate’s push for a strong open housing statute was led by Democratic senators Philip Hart Hart, Philip of Michigan and Walter Mondale Mondale, Walter of Minnesota and Republicans Edward William Brooke Brooke, Edward William of Massachusetts and Jacob K. Javits Javits, Jacob K. of New York. Until the final days of the debate on the bill, Senate Republican leaders opposed any open housing legislation, ostensibly because federal action would usurp prerogatives of the states. Explaining his conversion, Senate minority leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois told the Senate that only twenty-one states had open housing laws. He expressed a fear that it might take fifteen or twenty years for the other twenty-nine states to enact similar laws. In reality, he and other conservative opponents of open housing were won over by a compromise that added what they claimed were “tough sanctions against rioters and provocateurs of racial violence.” The Senate approved the bill on March 11.

Immediate consideration of the bill in the House was blocked by opponents of fair housing laws. Many opponents wanted to delay consideration of the bill until after the “poor people’s march,” which King had planned to begin in Washington on April 22. They reasoned that the march would annoy enough members to doom the bill. King’s assassination, however, created a groundswell of support for the bill. The House adopted the Senate’s version without amendment on April 10, one week after King’s assassination. Reminding the nation that he had waited three years for the bill, Johnson signed it the next day—April 11.

The Civil Rights Act of 1968 applied to about 80 percent of the nation’s housing. It reduced racial barriers, in three stages, in about 52.6 million single-family dwellings. When it became fully operational on January 1, 1970, the law prohibited discrimination on the basis of color, race, religion, or national origin in the sale or rental of most apartments and homes. The only dwellings exempted were single-family homes sold or rented without the assistance of a Realtor and small apartment buildings with resident owners. The law also prohibited discriminatory lending practices by financial institutions.

The law also provided severe federal penalties for persons convicted of intimidating or injuring civil rights workers and African Americans engaged in activities related to schooling, housing, voting, registering to vote, jury duty, and the use of public facilities. The act also extended the Bill of Rights to Native Americans living on reservations under tribal government and made it a federal crime to travel from one state to another or to use radio, television, or other interstate facilities with intent to incite a riot.


It is difficult to determine the impacts that resulted from the passage of the 1968 Civil Rights Act. The act cannot be assessed in isolation. It was but one of a series of statutory actions to integrate minorities, especially African Americans, into American life. Moreover, decisions of the Supreme Court on the issue of open housing carried far-ranging potentials.

In the end, however, the fair housing law did little to quell the problem of housing discrimination, as its enforcement provisions were weak. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was empowered to investigate complaints and to negotiate voluntary agreements with those found guilty of discrimination. If this conciliatory approach failed, the attorney general was authorized to bring lawsuits, an expensive and time-consuming process. Because the act failed to afford timely redress, victims of discrimination largely ignored it. Fewer than fifteen hundred complaints were filed during the first two years that the act was in effect. A 1974 study of real estate practices in major cities by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and another at the University of Michigan in 1976 showed that housing discrimination was widespread but subtle. Steering remained a common practice.

The Civil Rights Act of 1968 was amended on September 13, 1988, to eliminate defects. The amendments provided HUD with authority to forward class-action cases to the Department of Justice (DOJ) for prosecution, empowered the DOJ to initiate class-action suits on its own initiative, and increased monetary penalties.

A noticeable decline in residential segregation has occurred since the bill was enacted. Segregation in the twenty-five cities with the largest black populations declined 1 percent between 1960 and 1970 and 6 percent between 1970 and 1980. The decline for Asian Americans and Latinos was much greater. Preliminary statistics suggest that the decline in segregation accelerated for all groups between 1980 and 1990.

Court decisions also advanced the cause of open housing. A study by HUD in 2000 indicated that over the previous decade even more substantial declines in the level of discrimination occurred for both Latinos and African Americans attempting to purchase homes. That same study also showed a modest decline in discrimination against African Americans attempting to rent, but Latinos were more likely to be discriminated against in the rental market. The study also collected data for the first time on discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, finding that about one-fifth of them were discriminated against when trying either to rent or buy a home in the eleven U.S. metropolitan areas examined.

In 1967, the Supreme Court had invalidated California’s Proposition 14 Proposition 14 (1967) , which had been adopted by voters in 1964 to negate a fair housing bill enacted by the legislature. In ruling against Proposition 14, which gave property owners an absolute right to dispose of their property as they saw fit, the Court, in Reitman v. Mulkey, Reitman v. Mulkey (1967) held that although the state was not obligated to enact nondiscriminatory housing legislation, it could not enact provisions which had the effect of encouraging private discrimination. Much more significant, a few weeks after enactment of the new civil rights law, the Supreme Court made open housing a legal reality with the decision in Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Company Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Company (1968) . That decision resurrected a provision of the 1866 Civil Rights Act. Codified as section 1982, the provision reads that “All citizens of the United States shall have the same right, in every State and Territory, as is enjoyed by white citizens thereof to inherit, purchase, lease, sell, hold, and convey real and personal property.” The resurrection of section 1982 made the heart of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 dispensable. Fair Housing Act (1968) Civil Rights Act of 1968 Housing laws Racial and ethnic discrimination;housing Civil rights;United States

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abraham, Henry J., and Barbara A. Perry. Freedom and the Court: Civil Rights and Liberties in the United States. 8th ed. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003. Thorough review of the Supreme Court’s cases interpreting the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment. Contains good coverage of the cases and legal issues concerning the interpretation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bell, Derrick. Race, Racism, and American Law. 5th ed. New York: Aspen, 2004. A premier text on racism in the legal system. Appears in the standard law school format. It is punctuated with manufactured examples designed to stimulate discussion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Clark, Thomas A. Blacks in Suburbs: A National Perspective. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University, Center for Urban Policy Research, 1979. This sociological work places black suburbanization in the context of class development, urbanization, and migration.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Feagin, Joe R., and Clairece Booher Feagin. Discrimination American Style: Institutional Racism and Sexism. 2d ed. Malabar, Fla.: Robert E. Krieger, 1986. Focuses on racial and sex discrimination and argues that discrimination has causes other than bigotry and prejudice. Modern discrimination, according to the authors, is subtle and difficult to combat.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Graham, Hugh Davis. “The Surprising Career of Federal Fair Housing Law.” Journal of Policy History 12, no. 2 (2000): 215-232. A study of the legislative and enforcement history of federal fair housing laws, beginning in the 1960’s and including the period of the 1968 Civil Rights Act. Recommended reading.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nieman, Donald G. Promises to Keep: African-Americans and the Constitutional Order, 1776 to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Although rather brief, this work is an excellent source on the evolution of legal rights for African Americans. It is especially strong on developments in the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reynolds, Farley, and Walter R. Allen. The Color Line and the Quality of Life in America. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. One of the best works on deprivations caused by racism. Also examines the continued existence of discrimination.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Squires, Gregory D., and Charis E. Kubrin. Privileged Places: Race, Residence, and the Structure of Opportunity. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2006. Examines the continuing problem of housing discrimination in the United States. Chapters include “Race and Place,” “Accessing Traditionally Inaccessible Neighborhoods,” “Predatory Lending,” “Racial Profiling, Insurance Style,” and “Race, Place, and the Politics of Privilege.” Highly recommended reading. Includes maps.

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