A youngster descends the stairs of the SeVerna I apartment building in Washington. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

Thursday evening, after a long day talking about the Obama administration's plans to get serious about enforcing the nearly 50-year-old Fair Housing Act, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro spoke with "PBS News Hour" host Gwen Ifill. Castro acknowledged that the project would be a "long haul" and will require much more "enforcement."

And for the Fair Housing Act — which aims to combat discrimination in housing — its limited-if-not-failed legacy suggests that enforcement will indeed be critical. Because up to this point, that's been the missing piece.

First, a bit of history

Wonkblog's Emily Badger, who broke the news of the Obama administration's new effort Wednesday, has much of the back story.

Here's a brief recap: Two years before his death in 1968, Martin Luther King had become certain that fair housing — a policy that barred housing discrimination and could integrate neighborhoods — was critical. He believed racial segregation in housing made it possible for Northern and Southern city officials to provide different levels of service — on everything from schools to hospitals to housing inspections and code enforcement to public parks and pool facilities — in black and white neighborhoods. They could do this without ever really acknowledging the clear effect.

A week after King's assassination in Memphis, President Lyndon Johnson used his now-well-known legislative whipping might to get a national Fair Housing Act passed.

President Lyndon B. Johnson addresses a joint session of Congress in Washington on March 15, 1965, to outline his proposals for voting rights for all citizens. Vice President Hubert Humphrey is at left and House Speaker John McCormack is at right. (AP)

The law required cities receiving federal dollars to bar housing discrimination and "affirmatively" advance residential integration.

After Richard Nixon took office in 1969, he named former Michigan governor George Romney — father of 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney —  to serve as his secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Romney called the combination of federal programs that for decades had almost exclusively helped millions of white Americans buy homes in more affluent suburbs and continued segregation in cities a "white noose" around the country's black, increasingly poor and in some cases, riot-damaged communities.

George Romney, seated on the left, speaks with a young Mitt Romney. (Grey Villet—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Romney was determined to change this and withhold federal funds from communities that fought desegregation, but Nixon took clear steps to stop him. And as ProPublica reported in an exhaustive series, a series of presidents and other public officials — Democrats and Republicans — have fought over the issue ever since.

So, where does that leave us in the present?

The current situation with housing

A small — and the emphasis here is on the word small — number of black and Hispanic Americans have moved into middle-income and more-affluent, predominantly white communities, but the vast majority of the nation's neighborhoods remain deeply segregated.

And before anyone goes pointing to the lifestyles and homes of  Oprah Winfrey and Magic Johnson or their one black neighbor/friend, consider this: As recently as 2010, a Brown University study found the situation was so bad that 90 percent of black and Latino Americans would have needed to move to create truly racially balanced communities. And the average affluent black or Latino family lives in a neighborhood where people and conditions are poorer than those where the average low-income white family lives, a new Stanford University study published this month found.

It's hard to even know where to begin here. But if we limit our look to just the critical measures of health, education and employment, it's clear that major racial inequality persists — and that housing and persistent segregation have an impact.


On the health front, things are getting better, but they can hardly be described as good. The racial gap in life expectancy is well-known. And while heart disease is the leading driver of this difference, homicide rates among young black men ranks second, according to the CDC. So this issue is certainly complex.

At the other end of life, black children are almost two times more likely to be born early and more than two times as likely to die before their 1st birthdays than white infants.

Source: Centers for Disease Control, January 2014 http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6301a9.htm
(Infant Mortality (Death before the age of 1) Source: Centers for Disease Control, January 2014)

What does all of that have to do with residential segregation? A lot.

The role of residential segregation in racial health disparities — particularly those that extend up and down the income ladder — is a growing field of study and something the nation’s public health authorities are monitoring. Here's why.

Neighborhood environments — the presence of sidewalks, pools and safe parks and affordable, nutritious food versus the number of fast-food outlets, tobacco ads and actual crime — can shape behavior in ways that ultimately boost or erode health, a May 2011 review of public health research released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found. And the Department of Health and Human Services has acknowledged that low-income and predominantly black or Latino neighborhoods are more likely to be situated close to “harmful sources of pollution.”


On the education front, the news also is not good, but in some ways improving. Nationwide, most black students attend schools where nearly two out of three classmates — 64 percent — come from low-income families, according to a 2012 UCLA analysis of federal education data. That's true for just 37 percent of white students and 39 percent of Asian American ones. And out West, Latino students attend schools where nearly two-thirds of their classmates are other Latinos and two-thirds are poor.

All of that matters because low-income students often come to school less prepared to learn and are often taught by the country's least-experienced teachers. And if that is not grim enough, in schools with large numbers of black and Latino students, advanced placement courses and other classes that can help kids with college preparation can be rare or even totally absent.

A bright spot: The racial gaps in those who attend college have nearly disappeared. But racial college graduation rate gaps remain.

Source: Pew Research Center April, 2014
(Source: Pew Research Center)

And then, there is the question of jobs. At almost every point in the past 60 years, black unemployment has remained at least two times higher than white unemployment.

Unemployment by Race 2

That same pattern also holds when you look at black workers with more education.

Since unemployment is a measure of those actively seeking work but unable to find it, some labor experts argue that job referrals passed between neighbors, families and friendshiring discrimination and public transportation gaps create a cycle that results in elevated black unemployment.

Two of the three, we would note, are connected to where a person lives.

How has this happened?

The widespread idea that people buy homes or rent apartments today wherever their pocketbooks allow? Well, that's not quite true.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Justice Department and outside fair-housing advocacy groups have found persistent evidence of fairly widespread housing discrimination of almost every kind. When black and Latino adults go to rent an apartment, get a mortgage or shop for a home, some are still facing tactics like dishonesty about availability, steering into certain communities or loan terms far worse than white buyers with comparable credit scores and incomes.

Around the country, many cities have evaded and flat-out rejected their responsibility to "affirmatively" advance integration and the Fair Housing Act's other goals. That's happened in a variety of ways, but anti-density zoning practices and repeated blocks against affordable or low-income housing in middle- and upper-income areas rank among them.

HUD has, in many cases, continued to send federal housing dollars to these areas, despite their non-compliance. But in recent years, HUD has begun to withhold funds from places like Westchester County, N.Y. — something that has been watched closely in local government circles.

Westchester forfeited at least some federal funds so that it doesn't have to comply with fair-housing requirements. If other communities do the same, the law could become even less effective.

Now what?

The administration has announced new rules requiring communities to set fair housing goals, track them, evaluate local housing patterns for racial bias and evidence of continued segregation then report their results periodically. You can read all about it here.

It remains to be seen if that will work.