The African principle of Sankofa teaches that to have a strong future, we must bring forth knowledge gained from our past. The United States is at an inflection point on race — including on the fundamental question of housing policy.
In the United States, we continue to uphold exclusionary housing practices, rooted in our segregationist past, that hold back whole communities and stifle economic growth. We should instead choose inclusive and equitable solutions that support all people, particularly children strengthen our communities and grow the economy. Fully enforcing the Fair Housing Act, including its Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing mandate, offers the opportunity to build economic stability for Black people and for communities long denied. The incoming Biden-Harris administration can seize this opportunity.
Unfortunately, President Donald Trump did not, and he has grossly mischaracterized AFFH, which is a requirement to undo segregation and discrimination and the inequity they created. His false statements about the suburbs evoke racist tropes. They are reminiscent of discriminatory policies imposed by federal agencies that warned of the “infiltration of … inharmonious racial groups” and promoted the use of racially restrictive covenants.
After four years of desolation of civil rights and less-than-adequate housing policy, we are looking forward to working with the Biden-Harris administration and hope they place tackling housing discrimination, ensuring equal housing opportunity for all, and advancing restorative justice solutions at the forefront of their priorities.
To move forward as a country, opportunity must not be monopolized by suburban, mostly white communities. We must recognize that the pursuit of fair housing is a shared value and a shared interest. Diverse, inclusive communities are stronger socially, culturally and economically.
By looking at the Black experience in America and drawing on the principle of Sankofa, we see where our country fell short on delivering its promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Despite constant violence, Black people were resilient, establishing thriving communities in cities like Tulsa, Oklahoma; Memphis, Tennessee; Wilmington, North Carolina; and Rosewood, Florida. However, a state-sponsored system of terrorism and redlining relegated Black families to live in environmentally toxic areas and deprived them of economic opportunity. Meanwhile, the nation’s first fair housing law, passed during Reconstruction in 1866, languished for 102 years without enforcement. Today’s housing landscape reflects this ugly history.
Our large, overwhelmingly white middle class was created with direct government support — greatly expanded through New Deal programs like Federal Housing Administration-backed mortgages, Social Security, GI Bill benefits, and Department of Agriculture loans. The government facilitated and subsidized the accumulation of intergenerational wealth — but only for white families. Even as the labor and taxes of Black people helped push the economy forward, they were systematically denied financial security, public education and voting rights.
Like our present moment, 1968 was filled with tragedy and promise. Mere days following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a measure designed to expand opportunity was put in place — The Fair Housing Act. In addition to banning the invidious practice of housing discrimination, this civil rights law requires the Department of Housing and Urban Development to take active steps to ameliorate state-sponsored segregation and promote neighborhood integration.
The latter obligation was captured in the law’s section on Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing. However, no federal regulation to provide meaningful guidance on this requirement to foster well-resourced inclusive communities free from discrimination was promulgated until 2015. The goal of AFFH is to expand housing choices and make all neighborhoods places of opportunity.
In July of 2020, the Trump administration announced it would revoke the 2015 AFFH rule, which was designed to eliminate racial disparities in housing. It has offered inaccurate and inconsistent excuses for gutting the 2015 AFFH rule and has distorted its purpose, therefore ignoring the benefits of eliminating housing discrimination.
Locking families out of the opportunity to own a home or live in their community of choice has fueled the growing Black/white wealth gap, a divide that drags down the economy. According to recent reports from both Citibank and McKinsey & Company, addressing this racial wealth gap could expand the U.S. economy by $1 trillion per year.
This would add thousands of dollars each year to the pockets of the typical family and help those left behind in today’s uneven recovery. Unleashing the full wealth-building potential of Black consumers would result in increased savings and increased spending — money that would circulate throughout the economy, creating jobs, lifting wages and raising living standards along the way. In other words, the financial benefits of closing the racial wealth gap would be broadly shared by everyone.
Our nation has failed to achieve the goals of the Fair Housing Act because we never committed to fully implementing the law or eliminating the structural barriers put in place by centuries of race-based, harmful policies. We must now muster up the will to do so. In addition to the moral imperative, it promises a clear financial benefit for all parts of our country — city, suburb and rural — and for all people of all backgrounds.
Lisa Rice is president and CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance, an organization that works to eliminate housing discrimination and ensure equal housing opportunity for all people. Nikitra Bailey is executive vice president at the Center for Responsible Lending, an organization focused on closing the racial wealth gap and protecting homeownership and family wealth by eliminating abusive financial practices.
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