Law against housing discrimination marks 40th year on the books

Enacted days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968, the Fair Housing Act turned 40 this month. The law continues to provide protection against racial discrimination, but increasingly in recent years has been used to protect those with disabilities from unfair housing practices, federal officials said.

Nationally, 43 percent of fair housing complaints lodged with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban in 2006 and 2007 alleged discrimination on the grounds of disability while 37 percent cited racial discrimination, according to Chuck Hauptman, director of HUD’s Fair Housing Equal Opportunity Office, Region IX.

In the Las Vegas area during the last two years, about 50 percent of people making fair housing complaints cited unfair treatment on the basis of disability, Hauptman said from his San Francisco office.

“Disability discrimination has surged to the forefront as far as the number of cases. People are more aware of their rights,” said Hauptman, whose region includes Nevada, California, Arizona, Hawaii and Guam. “I think you’ll see this increasing more over time as baby boomers grow older.”

Protection against housing-related discrimination was not even a part of the original act that was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on April 11, 1968. The language providing protection for disabled individuals was added when the Fair Housing Act was amended in 1988.

The act protects people from discrimination in the rental, sale and financing of all forms of housing. The law forbids discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status (which means adults who have children under the age of 18 living with them, and also pregnant women) and those with disabilities.

Landlords, home sellers and others accused of violating the law can face a maximum civil penalty of $16,000 for each violation on the first offense, while also being ordered in some cases to pay compensatory damages to victims. A Las Vegas woman was awarded $35,000 in January in a settlement with a landlord who evicted her because she had a child living with her, according to HUD documents.

About 10,000 complaints were filed nationally last year. Complaints are investigated and then heard either in federal district court or in front of an administrative law judge, with either party allowed to request a district court hearing. Of the national total of roughly 10,000 last year, about 170 complaints arose in the state of Nevada, with about 100 of those reported in Southern Nevada, HUD said.

When the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968, racial discrimination was widely practiced in all sections of the country, not just the South. Dating back to the earliest days of Las Vegas, blacks were required to live in a segregated neighborhood west of the railroad tracks downtown.

One local resident who remembers the era before passage of the Fair Housing Act is 97-year-old Alice Key, who moved to the Las Vegas westside in 1954 from Riverside, Calif. Key said she found segregation to be much more deeply ingrained in Southern Nevada than it was in Southern California in those days.

“It was called the ‘Mississippi of the West,’ and deservedly so,” said Key, who now lives at a senior citizens residence on the east side of the valley. The divorced mother of one, grandmother of two and great grandmother of five said the Fair Housing Act led to the desegregation of Las Vegas, but it didn’t happen overnight.

“It has changed drastically, but it happened gradually,” Key said.

In Haughton, La., a case that made news this week provides a reminder that race-based housing discrimination continues to be an obstacle for some Americans. In the Louisiana case, HUD charged a couple April 22 under the Fair Housing Act with racial discrimination after homeowners Reggie and Kimberly Collier observed a black woman viewing their townhome, which was up for sale in 2004, and then allegedly told the real estate firm listing the residence that they didn’t want to sell to the woman. Reggie Collier allegedly told the real estate company he did not want “those kind of people” buying the property, HUD said in a press release announcing it filed civil charges against the couple.

HUD officials also claim Collier threatened to disconnect water and sewer services to the residence if the real estate firm sold it to a black buyer.

In this case, it turned out that the woman seen by the Colliers visiting the property was in fact a real estate agent representing a white couple, who decided, upon hearing of the Colliers’ alleged racist statements, not to buy the home, according to HUD representatives. The property eventually was sold to another white couple, HUD officials said.

Hauptman said that proving a violation of the Fair Housing Act can be much more difficult today than it was 40 years ago because racial discrimination is less overt.

“It used to be you’d see signs saying ‘white only, black only.’ It just doesn’t happen that way anymore. It’s much more subtle,” Hauptman said.

HUD officials believe that, for various reasons, violations of the Fair Housing Act are underreported, Hauptman said. The reasons, he said, include people not knowing protections afforded by the law, not wanting to take time to make a complaint and, in some cases, not even knowing they’ve been a victim of housing discrimination — for example, when a landlord or seller lies and says a property has already been taken when in fact it remains unoccupied or unsold.

“Probably a lot more (discrimination) goes on in Las Vegas than is being reported. There’s still a lot of segregated communities throughout the country,” Hauptman said.

Martin Luther King Jr. spent much of the mid-’60s working on fair housing issues and even lived for a period of time in a Chicago tenement during a campaign for open housing in that city.

In the turbulent days between King’s April 4 murder in Memphis and April 9 funeral in Atlanta, the U.S. House and Senate both voted to pass the sweeping Fair Housing Act that the civil rights leader had championed.

Johnson declared in signing the measure into law two days after King’s burial that “fair housing for all — all human beings who live in this country — is now a part of the American way of life.”

Fair housing bills had languished in Congress for months and appeared to be going nowhere in the spring of 1968 until the assassination of King led to a groundswell of support for prompt passage of a bill.

“His assassination definitely was the impetus,” Hauptman said. “The Senate passed its version without debate and the House quickly passed its version. They passed it before the funeral. His legacy is the Fair Housing Act, among other things.”

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