President Reagan, arguing that he is "committed to fairness" in budget and social policies despite reports from "misery merchants in the media," announced yesterday that this week he will propose amendments to "put real teeth" into the 1968 Fair Housing Act.
He did not say whether his proposal would allow enforcement of the law by administrative order instead of through often lengthy court cases. In 1980, a dispute over the law's enforcement provisions killed the last fair housing bill to reach a Senate vote.
Civil rights groups have argued since the law was first passed that it lacks timely, strong enforcement because it puts complaints of racial discrimination in home sales into busy federal courts where final rulings often are not made until long after houses are sold. The law also contains no penalties for cases of proven discrimination.
C. Anson Franklin, an assistant White House press secretary, would not say yesterday whether Reagan's proposal includes an administrative procedure that would allow government officials to decide if discrimination had occurred. But he said the bill includes "provisions that provide some relief to persons alleging discrimination during the course of litigation."
The president did say his proposal will "create substantial civil penalties for landlords and others found violating the law. This will include stiff fines up to $50,000 for first offense and $100,000 for a second offense."
The outlines of the proposal were first announced in May by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Samuel R. Pierce Jr., who said that "tough enforcement and swift justice will be at the heart of the bill."
The president said his proposal will allow the HUD secretary to forward individual complaints of discrimination to the Justice Department for litigation. Justice now can act only when there is evidence of discrimination.
Reagan also said his proposal will extend laws prohibiting housing discrimination on the basis of disability or size of the family.
He made his announcement in a Saturday radio speech disputing the charge that his administration's policies have not been fair to the poor, women and minorities. The "fairness issue" has become a political liability for Reagan, according to recent opinion polls showing that many Americans believe his policies favor the rich.
In the radio speech Reagan said any perception that he is not committed to fairness is caused by "the drumbeat of gloom and doom from misery merchants in some of the media."
"Our budget request for 1984 would have the federal government spend, after inflation, 2 1/2 times what it spent in 1970 on assistance to the poor," said Reagan, speaking from Camp David, Md., where he is spending the weekend.
"So, while, yes, there have been some cuts, they've been nowhere near as draconian as critics charge," Reagan said. "The truth is low-income Americans are receiving more food assistance in 1983 than ever before in history. During our administration, food assistance has grown by 34 percent . . . . Our administration is also distributing surplus cheese, butter, powdered milk, rice, flour, honey and corn meal to the needy and elderly . . . . "
"Those budget reductions you've heard so much about have been achieved by improving efficiency, reducing dependency, cutting waste and abuse and targeting on the neediest families," he said. "And that's as it should be. We're committed to fairness, and we'll continue to take actions needed to bring it about throughout our society."
In the Democrats' response yesterday, Rep. Robert J. Mrazek (N.Y.) replied, "I can say in total honesty that many accountable programs have been grievously damaged by the lack of fairness in President Reagan's cuts."
Reagan concluded his speech by announcing that he would send his fair housing proposal to Congress this week. In April, a bipartisan committee of 15 former government officials charged the Reagan administration with fostering widespread housing segregation by not enforcing or strengthening the fair housing law.
"We believe in the bold promise that no person in the United States should be denied full freedom of choice in the selection of housing because of race, color, religion, sex or national orgin," Reagan said on the radio yesterday. "We're proposing a series of amendments that will put real teeth into the Fair Housing Act . . . . We believe this is an important step for civil rights."