In the 1960s Congress began enacting a series of civil rights laws intended to (among other things) protect certain classes of home-buyers or renters from discriminatory housing practices, and to help increase the supply and access of housing for lower income and underrepresented populations. Known as “fair housing” legislation, the laws are administered and executed by the U.S. Housing and Urban Development’s office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity (FHEO).
Perhaps most prominent among them is the Fair Housing Act, a part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 that President Johnson signed exactly a week after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. As amended, the act prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental and financing of dwellings (homes of any kind) based on race, color, national origin, religion, gender, familial status, or disability. Essentially this means that a landlord or home seller can’t refuse a potential renter or buyer based on these bases. Interestingly, sexual orientation or gender identity is not included in the federal law, although it considered a protected class under the California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act.
Marin County was recently found to be out of compliance with federal fair housing laws. How so?
It’s actually more an issue of what they didn’t do, and how that can actually restrict housing choices to minority classes protected under federal and state housing laws. Here’s how:
Marin recently received a large pot of federal funding as part of a Community Development Block Grant. The grants are part of a HUD program meant to help local governments provide decent affordable housing services and jobs in lower income communities. In determining how the funds would be used, Marin was required to actively solicit and incorporate input from residents of its lower income and minority communities, and HUD alleged that the county did not do enough outreach to ensure that a representative swath of the population was included in the planning process. Marin also failed to provide HUD with an adequate demographic data profile (racial, ethnic, gender, disability) on who would benefit from the funds. Put simply: their record keeping wasn't up to snuff.
Anne Quesada, the director of HUD’s regional Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity center, explains it like this: “Because they weren’t collecting or submitting accurate demographics from those getting direct benefits of the money, we couldn’t tell who was participating or benefiting from it.”
As a recipient of these funds, she adds, Marin must demonstrate that it is “affirmatively furthering fair housing” and that it has identified the “impediments to fair housing choice.” A crucial part of doing that is to demonstrate that the county isn’t just slapping up a bunch of affordable housing that's concentrated in just a few locations, the county must show that it is making proactive efforts to increase housing access throughout the jurisdiction.
HUD charged that Marin failed to comply with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as well as two other federal anti-discrimination statutes. Collectively, the laws prohibit discrimination (on the basis of race, color, national origin, gender, disability, or religion) within programs and activities that receive federal funding. The county has already agreed to take action to increase accessibility to the county for minorities and other lower income.
Marin has one of the most expensive housing markets in the country. The county is 80 percent white, according to 2010 Census data, with seven of the ten whitest communities in the Bay Area. Much of its small black and Hispanic population is concentrated in just areas: Marin City and San Rafael's Canal District.
Interestingly, Quesada says that similar instances of noncompliance by local government recipients are pretty common and, in most cases, fairly easy to rectify. Marin has since entered into a voluntary compliance agreement and last month submitted a document to HUD titled “Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice” (AI), which the agency will review by the end of the year. Among the fair housing impediments Marin included in its report: strict zoning ordinances; restrictions on high-density, multi-family housing; insufficient outreach to non-English speakers, predatory lending practices; and negative stereotypes about low income residents with Section 8 vouchers.
What does “fair housing” have to do with “affordable housing"?
Explicitly, not that much; no federal law mandates local governments to create specific numbers of affordable homes in their communities. In fact, under fair housing laws (both nationally and in California) landlords can lawfully discriminate against tenants with low incomes or bad credit histories.
That said, though, when local governments do receive CDBG grants and other housing funds, the money is explicitly intended to serve the needs of lower income and minority communities by increasing supply and access to affordable housing options throughout a jurisdiction.
“When you do build affordable housing, we’re interested in where you place housing,” notes Quesada. “Is it a good area? Is it a sustainable area? Who is benefiting?”
Online fair housing resources