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A Battle For Fair Housing Still Raging, But Mostly Forgotten

It's not something we think about a lot or something that gets reported on often, but once you start digging around some, it's hard not to see the consequences of our country's long, sordid history of housing discrimination everywhere racial disparities manifest. The giant wealth gap between black and Latino Americans and white folks. Shorter life expectancies. Worse educational outcomes. Mass incarceration.

Last week's This American Life episode was entirely devoted to this topic, and it makes the relationship between housing discrimination and these other disparities jarringly clear.

"[On] every measure of well-being and opportunity, the foundation is where you live," Nikole Hannah-Jones, the ProPublica reporter on whose reporting much of the episode was based, told TAL's Nancy Updike. "Cancer rates, asthma rates, infant mortality, unemployment, education, access to fresh food, access to parks, whether or not the city repairs the roads in your neighborhood."

The show starts off with the story of a young woman named Jada from Akron whose mother falsified her address so that Jada could attend school at a neighboring, much better-funded Ohio school district. When her mother's deception came to light, Jada was kicked out of the school she'd attended for years. Her mom was thrown in jail.

Since property taxes fund local services, places with high property values tend to have much better school systems and public amenities. What the TAL episode expertly illustrated was the many ways that those property values have been deliberately racialized. Beginning in the 1930s, the federal government actually refused to back loans if black people lived nearby, and builders actively and openly prohibited black people from moving to new suburban developments. The net effect was that black people of all incomes were clustered in poorer urban centers, where they also received egregiously inferior public services, and where there was downward pressure on their abilities to create wealth.

But this kind of discrimination isn't some practice from a darker, bygone era — it just looks different today. According to a study we wrote about recently, when white folks and people of color went to inquire about buying or renting homes, they got different treatment. Whites were shown more units and were offered lower rent. Everyone said they were treated courteously. There were no "Negroes Need Not Apply" signs on the doors. No real estate agents slammed doors in brown folks' faces. They simply offered them fewer choices at higher prices.

Hannah-Jones' reporting on the Fair Housing Act, which was meant to correct this kind of discrimination, found that it had been mostly toothless and ineffective since it went into effect and that there's little political momentum behind bolstering it. (Here's a recent report from Hannah-Jones on the moves that have been made over the past year.)

We invited Hannah-Jones to chat with us about the TAL story and why the issue still remains so under-covered.

GENE DEMBY: What surprised you most when you started reporting on this issue?

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Like most Americans, I knew very little about fair housing law and the history of the 1968 Fair Housing Act when I first began reporting this story. I knew housing discrimination was illegal, but that's about it. So, many things surprised me along the way, but two facts surprised me most. One, it was kind of unbelievable how egregiously little the governments — federal on down — have done to enforce this landmark civil rights law. I discovered governments have largely spent the last 45 years going about their business as if this law didn't exist , and in fact, were often taking actions that came out on the wrong side of the law. Two, I was literally taken aback by the fact that this law not only called for an end to housing discrimination, but that it mandated that the federal government wield its considerable powers to take affirmative steps to break down that housing segregation it created. Wow. That was powerful.

The TAL story notes that we've known about these issues for a long time, but there's not a whole lot of momentum toward ameliorating these things. Are there any small-scale solutions on the horizon in places? Are there jurisdictions we should be looking to and learning from?

Honestly, very, very few. Housing segregation is one of those entrenched social issues that no one — progressive or conservative — really wants to touch. One of the biggest fair housing fights in recent memory is taking place in the liberal New York City suburb of Westchester County. This county overwhelmingly voted for President Obama and is home to liberal lions such as the Clintons, Andrew Cuomo and even some of the Kennedys. Yet not one of them has spoken out on the fight for open housing for black and Latino residents there.

I think it is easy for many Americans to believe that laws on the books make us post-racial, even if the reality is decidedly racialized.

But we don't want to appear hopeless, so let me point to a few places that show intentional efforts can have an effect.

One is Montgomery County, Md., which in the '70s adopted one of the nation's first inclusionary zoning ordinances. The ordinance mandates affordable housing be placed in an sizable development built in the county, and the county is considered a model for dispersing integrative housing into even the toniest of zip codes. A recent study showed that the low-income students given access to better schools because of the ordinance have benefited tremendously.

Another is Oak Park outside of Chicago. The affluent community took a stand against the white flight that was sweeping across Chicago decades ago and took active steps to ensure integration. It passed a fair housing ordinance in 1968 and a few years later founded the Oak Park Housing Center to promote integrated housing and to discourage the pattern of white residents leaving communities once black residents move in that has defined many Chicago suburbs in. Oak Park has managed to remain a stably integrated community in one of the most segregated metro areas in the country.

What got you interested in reporting on this?

Simple beat reporting. I was working for a newspaper in Oregon when a press release landed in my email about some tests the city of Portland had done to gauge the level of housing discrimination that black and Latino residents faced. When I asked city officials what they intended to do with the landlords that the tests had found violated the law, city officials informed me they did not plan to do a thing. The tests, they said, were informational only. Say what? That raised my antennae. So I started digging and quickly learned that Portland was only following the federal government's lead. Fair housing enforcement was a joke. A year and a half later, a new job and a cross-country move, I published my project on the 45-year failure of the federal government to enforce this landmark civil rights law.

You say that these realities are informed by race, but there's not an appetite for talking about race-based solutions. Why do you think that is?

That's a hard one to answer in just a few words. But I guess the easiest way is that there has been a very successful campaign that began as soon as the government began passing civil rights laws to say that now that the country cannot legally discriminate, race is not longer an issue we need to — or can — address. This is the whole notion that racial segregation by law is wrong but that the fact of racial segregation is not. And this notion began really as soon as the federal government began enforcing Brown v Board of Education. The very same people who promoted and enforced racial segregation by law, once the laws changed, they said it was wrong to use race to undo that segregation. And our nation has largely bought into that.

We are a society that largely believes that the struggle for racial equality ended with the laws passed during the civil rights movement and there was nothing left to be done. I think it is easy for many Americans to believe that laws on the books make us post-racial, even if the reality is decidedly racialized. The Supreme Court in decisions beginning in the early '70s and continuing through this year has largely confirmed that belief by its rulings.

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Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.