The Most Important Housing Law Passed in 1968 Wasn’t the Fair Housing Act

At the Aug. 1, 1968 signing ceremony, President Johnson proclaimed “Today, we are going to put on the books of American law what I genuinely believe is the most farsighted, the most comprehensive, the most massive housing program in all American history.” He was right. 

A New Deal Agency provided financing to build Rosewood courts, a public housing project, in Austin, Texas. But after the New Deal in the 30s, there was another housing law in the 60s that would have done a lot of good.
Rosewood Courts, Austin, Texas. The United States Housing Authority, a New Deal Agency, provided financing to build the public housing project in 1939. Photo by Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 3.0

In commemorating the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Fair Housing Act this year, it may be useful to look more deeply into some of the details of American housing history from this period. Fifty years on, it is important for us to take stock of what worked and what didn’t.

On April 11, 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act. The law was a follow-up to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and also updated the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which—unbeknownst to many—also prohibited discrimination in housing after the Civil War.

Passage of this law should be seen in historical perspective. At the time that Johnson signed the bill, Martin Luther King Jr. had just been assassinated a week earlier and the so-called King Riots were still happening. Photos and video of rioting and of the Vietnam War had become fixtures on the nightly news. Much to Johnson’s chagrin, the Kerner Commission had also just released its findings and recommendations on Feb. 29, 1968. The country—and the world—were on fire.

By 1968 it had become apparent, especially to King, Whitney Young, and other members of the “Big Six,” that solving the problem of racism in northern cities was going to prove a significantly more daunting challenge that could not be confronted as effectively by nonviolent direct action as in the South. “I Have a Dream” and Selma had been superseded. According to groups such as the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), it was now about Black Power.

The idea of anti-discrimination legislation in housing was not new. It had been an objective of liberal African-American civil rights leaders since at least the 1930s. Robert Weaver, whom Johnson appointed as the first African-American cabinet secretary in 1965, had been fighting for fair housing since his days as a member of the short-lived United States Housing Authority (USHA) created by the 1937 Housing Act. By the late 1940s Weaver had become the nation’s foremost expert on housing discrimination with the publication of his 1948 classic The Negro Ghetto, which in its analysis and policy formations was something of an African-American liberal version of Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemmawhich had been released four years prior.

Has the Fair Housing Act Worked?

In a word: No. Not only does racial discrimination in housing still exist (click here for a recent example), class segregation has worsened. Scholars have offered numerous explanations.

One major explanation for this unfortunate state of affairs is that the law has no teeth. Compliance with the Fair Housing Act has mostly become a paperwork exercise. Over the act’s 50-year existence, thousands of “Impediments to Fair Housing Choice” reports have sat on municipal shelves gathering dust, their findings and analyses unread and their recommendations unheeded.

Enforcement is another problem. Proving discrimination in housing is notoriously difficult and expensive. HUD’s civil rights division’s record in investigating, much less prosecuting, Fair Housing Act complaints is spotty at best. I found out about how difficult it can be to investigate Fair Housing Act violations while working as a fair housing tester for the Austin Tenants’ Council in the late 1990s; heroic levels of persistence are necessary.

Perhaps most importantly, this civil rights law failed because of its race and class neutrality, also a weakness of the predecessor civil rights laws enacted in 1964 and 1965. Perhaps the single most important lesson the past 50 years should have taught us by now is this: we cannot fix discrimination in housing via an anti-discrimination framework. Conscious race and class measures are needed that tackle the inherent problems of American inequality at their root.

Housing is a Human Right

All of the fair housing talk of the previous five decades has missed an obvious point: safe, decent, and affordable housing is a human right. That right is ensconced in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article Twenty-Five, Section One.

The United States once understood this:

“The general welfare and security of the Nation and the health and living standards of its people require housing production and related community development sufficient to remedy the serious housing shortage, the elimination of substandard and other inadequate housing through the clearance of slums and blighted areas, and the realization as soon as feasible of the goal of a decent home and suitable living environment for every American family.” —Housing Act of 1949

The Forgotten 1968 Housing Law

The most important housing law passed in 1968 was not the Fair Housing Act, it was the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968. But that is not how history has remembered it. If you Google “Housing Act of 1968” nearly every result refers to the Fair Housing Act. This misremembering is not accidental—it reflects the race and class trajectory of America over the past five decades.

The housing act of 1968 was the true capstone on President Johnson’s housing career, and had its promise been fulfilled, many of the problems beleaguering American cities today might have been avoided or at least mitigated. Johnson did not just consider it one of the most important pieces of legislation he ever signed, he considered it one of the most important pieces of legislation in American history:

“I have signed more than 500 major measures as a member of Congress, and perhaps in a century from now, 10 of those measures will be remembered as outstanding. If I were to look back upon the 10 measures that I know that have been passed in the 188 years of our government, I would list the Housing Act of 1968 as one of the 10 most important.”

At the Aug. 1, 1968 signing ceremony for the bill, President Johnson proclaimed “Today, we are going to put on the books of American law what I genuinely believe is the most farsighted, the most comprehensive, the most massive housing program in all American history.” He was right. The housing act of 1968 was the biggest housing bill in the history of the United States by a considerable margin. It eclipsed the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1965, a law that Johnson at the time also considered to be one of his most important accomplishments. (The 1965 law created the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Johnson reluctantly appointed Robert Weaver as the department’s first director, making him the first African-American cabinet secretary.)

The 1968 housing act included a smorgasbord of housing ideas: Model Cities (in Austin that included Austin Oaks and the Rebekah Baines Johnson Center), Section 235 homeownership subsidies, Section 236 rental assistance (which gave us the term “Fair Market Rent”), business insurance, and a robust increase in public housing construction. The act declared that the goal “can be substantially achieved within the next decade by the construction or rehabilitation of 26 million housing units, 6 million of these for low- and moderate-income families.”

The 1968 housing act also reaffirmed the nation’s commitment, first articulated in the 1949 Housing Act, of a decent home and suitable living environment for every American family. All of the programs included in the act were funded at historic levels–by a considerable margin.

Looking back, it seems somewhat ironic that the HUD secretary who presided over the single largest construction of federally subsidized housing in American history was George Romney, father of former Massachusetts governor and current Senate candidate from Utah Mitt Romney. American housing production between 1968 and 1972 was both robust and diverse. It was also experimental.

It is not commonly acknowledged that much of modern “greenbuilding” is a government creation. The federal government sponsored high-design public housing projects in the 1930s that utilized an early version of what today would be termed “passive solar” heating. It also sponsored the installation of solar panels at public housing projects in Miami in the early 1940s. The 1968 housing act sponsored housing research that examined the feasibility of large-scale construction of pre-fab housing that would be affordable and energy efficient. This, more than anything else, influenced what a later generation of urbanists would go on to simplistically proclaim as “missing middle” housing, not architectural design or local zoning politics.

So what happened? What happened was this: it was working, then around 1972 it died. More specifically, it was killed.

White resistance to integration as well as overall hostility to government housing efforts, especially in northern cities, was strong. Old-fashioned racism also reared its ugly head. Consequently, President Richard Nixon declared a moratorium on the entire federal housing effort in 1971, and the liberal era of American housing policy started during the New Deal in the 1930s came to an end.

Nixon declared that the old approach was a failure and called for a new, more conservative approach. What America got was block grants and a new tenant-based voucher program known as Section 8. In other words, deregulation and delegation. This era also marks the beginning of steep reductions in direct federal funding for affordable housing construction and maintenance, and the encroachment of the so-called FIRE (Finance, Insurance, Real Estate)Sector into affordable housing provision in America. Government was pulling back: mortgage-backed securities, first introduced in February 1970, were termed “the real estate financing innovation of the 1970s.”

In 2018, even the thought of direct federal provision of affordable housing is nearly unimaginable. The “public/private partnership” has been so thoroughly drilled into the collective consciousness of the American mind that it has now become common sense to destroy historic public housing and to invest private entities with public development rights and taxpayer subsidies instead (something the Austin City Council would proclaim as virtuous at its March 22, 2018, meeting in discussions about plans for Austin’s historic Rosewood Courts public housing project).

Meanwhile, the waiting list for public housing in Austin is over 20,000 people, nearly 10,000 families. The waiting list is perpetually closed, so the actual number is even higher.

After presidents Nixon and Carter, it was all downhill: Ronald Reagan dramatically cut housing funding in the early 1980s utilizing a stereotyped public housing “welfare queen” (who, it turned out, wasn’t just a stereotype, she didn’t actually exist. Reagan used a variety of versions, depending upon the audience) to do it. His HUD Secretary Samuel Pierce, an earlier version of current HUD Secretary Ben Carson, oversaw the dismantling of what his predecessor Robert Weaver had helped to create, and was also embroiled in scandal.

Under Reagan, our neoliberal era began in earnest. Funding for the poor and working class was redistributed upward. In 1981 the remaining War on Poverty initiatives that had survived the Nixon era were consolidated into a Community Services Block Grant program housed in the Health and Human Services department, not HUD. Deficit spending, mostly on defense, increased dramatically. At the same time that the federal government was cutting funding for affordable housing programs and other initiatives that actually helped American people, it increased taxpayer funding for the construction of prisons. It also escalated the drug war started under Nixon and deregulated and delegated further.  

It would be wrong to only blame president Reagan: these things took place under both Republican and Democratic administrations. The Community Service Block Grant (CSBG) was enacted by a Democratic congress. Bill Clinton gave us the 1994 Crime Bill, the 1996 Welfare Reform Bill, the 1998 “Quality Housing” Bill, and the end of Glass-Steagall.

Chances are you won’t hear this history discussed at your next fair housing conference. Chances are you won’t hear about the provision of housing by right, regardless of income. One of the reasons why is because the Fair Housing Act did succeed in creating a lot of jobs for Fair Housing Act experts. These specialists have become a powerful constituency, and make up an important part of the housing portion of the nonprofit industrial complex now governing important parts of contemporary American neoliberal capitalism.

Lastly, you most certainly will not hear about the most important insight of New Deal liberals in the 1930s: that the private real estate market is structurally incapable of furnishing safe, decent, and truly affordable housing for low-income families. Until contemporary crusaders for desegregation can bring themselves to terms with this basic law of American real estate, their efforts will continue to be well intentioned, but misguided.

The provision of that human right, is government’s, not the private sector’s, job.

A version of this post originally appeared on the Fred L. McGhee blog.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Excellent analysis of housing programs. Fair housing is critical but the anti-discrimination measures aren’t working to fix anything. It is good to hear someone say it. So thank you Fred.

  2. Powerful analysis, thank you. But would you say that the New Deal housing programs were also inadequate by themselves, since public housing developments tended to be segregated due to often violent white resistance to developments being placed in their neighborhoods? Though the race and class segregation of public housing didn’t sink to its worst point until the postwar era, when homeownership became attainable to many working class whites who lived in or would’ve considered living in public housing.

  3. I would. But racism wasn’t the only shortcoming of the 1937 Housing Act. The draft of the law written by Leon Keyserling and Catherine Bauer would have produced a more far-reaching American housing program that would have allowed unions, cooperatives, as well as non-profits to participate in the new housing program created by the law. Other progressive ideas were stripped from the law as well. These ideas are still in circulation 81 years later.

    While organizations such as the National Association of Real Estate Boards succeeded in watering down the law, it was really the intransigence of racist members of Congress, mostly from the South, who frustrated the ability of USHA Administrator Nathan Straus to implement the program effectively.

    That said, it is important to remember that without strong union pressure, President Roosevelt would not have signed the law. By 1937 the New Deal had largely run out of steam, and political enemies of “socialism” were everywhere in the Congress.

    You can read about some of this history in my National Register nomination for the Rosewood Courts Historic District, which you can download at http://www.preserverosewood.org. While there, I hope you’ll also take the time to download a copy of the “People’s Plan to Preserve Austin’s Public Housing” which envisions fixing up our historic public housing instead of demolishing or privatizing it, and greenbuilding it to the Passive House standard.

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