IN HIS STATE of the Union address this year, President Reagan called for strengthened enforcement of the nation's fair housing laws. Unfortunately, his administration hasn't followed through. The goals of the fair housing law--allowing the private market in housing to operate, free of racial discrimination--seem compatible with the administration's philosophy. So the administration's refusal to enforce fully the present weak fair housing law--not to mention its refusal to endorse a stronger one--naturally leaves many citizens with doubts about its commitment to racial fairness.
What should the administration be doing? The Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, a group of people whose views on these issues are different from the administration's, have cited some specific ways in which the administration is not even enforcing the current law properly. They include these:
The Department of Housing and Urban Development has not issued revised fair housing regulations for more than two years now. HUD Secretary Samuel Pierce does not have to issue the same regulations his predecessor would have adopted. But can't he come up with something?
HUD's Community Housing Resources Boards, the main mechanism for encouraging enforcement, have proven inadequate. The boards can't publish the names of real estate firms that are members, and organizations that organize tests of housing discrimination are barred from membership. The boards also can't get involved in testing real estate practices. Even so, the National Association of Realtors has told its members not to join. The administration has recommended cutting the funding of CHRBs from $2 million to $1 million. Instead, it should set up an enforcement mechanism that can act aggressively to encourage compliance with the law.
The Department of Justice has sharply reduced the number of fair housing cases it has brought from the level of the 1970s, when there were between 20 and 32 cases a year, to no more than five cases in 1981 and 1982. Even under the narrow limits of the current law, there must have been more instances when legal action was justified.
Not all of the commission's criticisms of the administration are well taken. We don't agree, for example, that the government should resume challenges of minimum acreage zoning laws in the suburbs. This is economic discrimination, which is not prohibited by the law, and concentrating on this kind of enforcement gives the inaccurate impression that all blacks have low incomes. The aim of fair housing laws should be to give a free choice to blacks of all income levels. Nor do we think it's wise to pummel the administration for requiring discriminatory intent rather than simply evidence of discriminatory effect in order to find a violation. In practice, the two come pretty close to the same thing: evidence that few or no blacks have been able to buy or rent in a particular area can be used to convince a finder of fact that someone has acted with discriminatory intent.
Adequate enforcement of the current law is not all we need; we need a stronger fair housing law, like the one the House passed in 1980. But, in the meantime, can't the administration at least follow through on the president's promise?