Getting our house in order: The future of fair housing in Memphis

Fair housing advocates gathered in Memphis last week to help educate the public on discriminatory housing and lending practices, offering insight into how the city can collectively create a fair, competitive and productive community where all citizens can flourish. 

Housing discrimination comes in many forms. Imagine being evicted from your apartment after experiencing a domestic violence attack. Or imagine inquiring about a property for rent and being given one amount, while your spouse or friend of a different ethnic background is quoted a better price. Or perhaps you're wheelchair bound and your housing options are incredibly limited because of accessibility. 

These scenarios are unfortunately common in the U.S., and while they are not a typical demonstration of the blatant housing discrimination of the 1960s when people of color were not allowed to live in certain neighborhoods, these situations fall under the protections of the Fair Housing Act.

In modern discriminatory circumstances, the  U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity step in to, hopefully, to set things right.

Discrimination still exists, it’s just adapted.

“Discrimination isn’t as up front and nasty as it was 45 years ago. It has morphed,” Bryan Greene, General Deputy Assistant Secretary of HUD’s Office of Fair Housing, said. He was excited to be in Memphis in April, celebrated nationally as Fair Housing Month.

The Fair Housing Act turns 47 years old this year, and its tenets still carry weight.

On April 10, 1968 the House of Representatives passed the Fair Housing Act, which prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin and sex. This came just six days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who shined a light on fair housing as a civil rights issue after marching for open housing in Chicago in 1966. After King's death, President Lyndon B. Johnson pushed to have the bill passed as a testament to his legacy.

“Memphis is at the center of the Fair Housing Act. In many respects, it is a memorial to Dr. King,” Greene said. “We’ve seen a lot of progress, but on many fronts there’s still significant work to do."

So why is fair housing so crucial? Housing plays a major role in defining a person's quality of life. Access to safe and affordable housing is a “right” of every American. Equal opportunity in housing offers the chance to live, work, and interact in richly diverse settings and opens doors to other opportunities. Where a person lives affects their access to social, cultural, educational and many other community amenities such as schools, transportation, employment, medical services, retail and professional services, recreational and entertainment opportunities, and much more. 

Preventing discrimination is the ultimate goal, and to do that education is the key, say fair housing advocates.

“I’ve been doing this since 2000, and I think I’ve seen a difference. Even nationwide I would say I’ve seen a difference. There needs to be a lot more education,” said Sapna Raj, Managing Attorney for the Memphis Fair Housing Center.

Last week, fair housing proponents in and around the MidSouth were looking to do just that. The Memphis HUD Office, Memphis Area Legal Services, West Tennessee Legal Services and the Tennessee Human Rights Commission jointly hosted the West Tennessee Fair Housing Celebration.

The event, held at the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law downtown, focused on developments in fair housing policy and enforcement and annually attracts close to 100 area housing activists, bankers, lawyers and realtors who are eager for the opportunity to learn about fair housing and equity issues present in the region. ?Attorneys can even earn up to 4.00 CLE (Continued Legal Education) credits, a required piece of professional upkeep.

“I think it’s very helpful. A lot of attorneys and real estate agents don’t know what the fair housing laws are or understand the different aspects of it,” Raj said of the event.

One session at this year's event reviewed Greenprint Fair Housing components, looking at how the Mid-South Regional Greenprint and Sustainability Plan will address issues of fair housing and equity in order to create a more sustainable and livable region for all. Other topics for the one-day event included discrimination in local rental housing, fair lending and home ownership, and the Olmstead Act that requires states to eliminate unnecessary segregation of persons with disabilities. The day's centerpiece was a keynote presentation from Greene, who offered information on the current issues HUD is addressing concerning housing discrimination.

“I adressed segregated neighborhoods. It’s still unfinished business. Cities, whether they are in the north or the south, still show dramatic, stark segregated housing patterns,” Greene, of Washington, D.C., said.

“We’re addressing women on maternity leave who are denied loans, when men are not denied loans when they are on similar leave,” Greene said. “We talked about the cases we’re bringing on behalf of families with children. We see more and more cases of housing complexes with onerous rules, such as children have to be accompanied by an adult at all times. Also the most common complaints filed are from those with disabilities. If you are a person with a disability, you need to be aware of your rights.”

Tim Bolding, Executive Director of United Housing Inc., knows all too well the topics discussed in the session on fair lending and home ownership. His nonprofit organization helps families and individuals to become homeowners or to avoid foreclosure.

“If ever there has been an attack on homeownership in America, this is it. From the predatory lending to the collapse of the housing market and the economic system that created that, it is a terrible thing,” Bolding said. “What we have is a financial situation. Tens of thousands of people can’t qualify for a loan. The turn-down rate we see today has to be cured if there is going to be equal access to lending to buy houses.”

“If ever there was a cure, it would be education of the customer,” he continued. “And it’s time for us to start looking at the lending criteria and improve industry standards.”

United Housing Inc. has helped more than 4,000 families obtain a home or keep a home, and it offers educational classes on homeownership, counseling, and financial planning help.

“There needs to be some sort of widespread education system on homeownership and credit counseling—whether that is financial management taught in high school or offering classes for college freshmen—so that they understand financial management and what the lending criteria are,” Bolding said. “That coupled with working with lenders to come up with standards that actually work. Last time the pendulum swung so far, anybody could get a loan. All you had to do
was walk in and be breathing. Now it’s swung too far to the conservative side.”

For more information about the Fair Housing Act or to find out how to file a complaint about fair housing, visit the HUD website.

Read more articles by Lesley Young.

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