House under construction

Housing Perspectives

Research, trends, and perspective from the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies

Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing: The Rule is Back, but Can It Make a Difference?

The federal government’s controversial fair housing rule is back in play, which makes the release of a new book about it timely indeed.

In 2015, during the Obama administration, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) approved the rule, known as Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH), that civil rights advocates hoped would significantly boost racial integration of predominantly white communities. In the Trump administration, however, HUD retreated from the regulation, terminating it in July 2020. During last year’s presidential campaign, Trump excoriated the rule as “devastating” to suburbs, while housing advocates countered that it was essential as a way to ensure all Americans have access to housing of their choice. After the election, Biden administration officials signaled they would revive the AFFH rule.

In the new book Furthering Fair Housing: Prospects for Racial Justice in America's Neighborhoods, the authors make clear, however, that the AFFH rule was neither a panacea nor a disaster. Rather, it was an earnest attempt to respond to a complex issue.

The history of the fair housing movement in the United States, which I trace in my essay for the book, “The Origins of the Fair Housing Act of 1968,” sheds light on the nature of the problem or, more accurately, problems, the rule was intended to solve.

In the twentieth century, civil rights activists and housing reformers first attacked discrimination against African Americans in the housing sector by contesting government policies that supported racial covenants and unjust real estate practices, as well as programs such as mortgage insurance and urban renewal. From the mid-twentieth century, fair housing advocates pushed for legislation that prohibited discrimination by race in any housing-related transactions.

Over time, advocates added new goals for the fair housing movement. In the late 1960s, supporters of a national fair housing law blamed discrimination for creating racial “ghettos,” portraying predominantly Black neighborhoods as dismal places of entrenched poverty and social ills. The advocates extended their agenda beyond simply ending discriminatory practices to include breaking up “ghettos” and promoting racial integration throughout metropolitan areas.

When Congress discussed the fair housing legislation, Senator William Proxmire (D-WI) and Edward Rutledge, executive director of the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing, doubted that simply prohibiting discrimination would do the job. They pointed to suburban land use restrictions, such as zoning ordinances and building codes, that prevented the development of small houses and multifamily apartment buildings, and thereby excluded low-income people, many of whom were Black.

In the end, the Fair Housing Act of 1968, passed in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., remained true to the original goal. It barred discrimination in the selling and renting of residences and any housing-related activities in real estate brokering and lending.

As implemented, the law curtailed many instances of discrimination, yet residential racial integration proceeded agonizingly slowly. The reasons were many, ranging from white people’s bigotry to the tendency, as I document in my chapter, of Americans of all races not to make it a high priority to live in a racially integrated neighborhood.

To accelerate the pace of integration, in the 1990s HUD officials crafted new regulations based on a phrase in the 1968 act that required federal agencies to “affirmatively… further” anti-discrimination policies. HUD required municipal officials seeking federal planning and development funds to submit plans that identified and counteracted practices that prevented members of racial and other protected groups from residing in their jurisdictions.

Agreeing with fair housing advocates who judged this program to be largely ineffective, in 2015 HUD officials adopted the new rule to help communities integrate and provide social and economic opportunities to people of any race, gender, age, disability, or sexual orientation.

If the Biden administration reinstates the AFFH rule, will it work? Only time will tell. In the meantime, the essays in Furthering Fair Housing are an excellent guide to understanding the method behind the rule, its potential for success, and the obstacles to achieving its goals.