Experts: On 50th anniversary of Fair Housing Act, much work remains to be done in Memphis

Fifty years on from the enactment of The Fair Housing Act the groundbreaking legislation that was part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and was meant to protect renters and homebuyers from discrimination fulfilling the legislation’s promise is far from complete. Especially in Memphis, a city where housing experts point to significant wealth and housing disparities among racial groups.

In light of the legislation’s anniversary, and also in commemoration of the fact it was approved just seven days after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a panel of housing experts assembled at the National Civil Rights Museum on July 18 to figure out where the fight for affordable housing goes from here, and how we get there.

One of the most fundamental truths you take away from a discussion with people like Dwayne Spencer, president and CEO of Habitat for Humanity of Greater Memphis, is that to achieve any kind of change, a genuine discussion about affordable housing has to go beyond, well, housing.

Because someone’s hope of finding affordable housing in a community of choice, for example, can’t really go far without a job that pays a decent wage.

The math that housing officials shared at this week’s discussion is certainly striking. According to Habitat, a Memphis resident earning minimum wage who wants to live in a two-bedroom apartment going for the market rent of a little more than $800 a month would have to work 89 hours a week.

“In Memphis, everything we’ve been doing from day one has been about creating access,” Spencer said. “Especially families with low incomes and not charging them interest.

I think there’s a lot of deep conversation that still has to happen. We have to get away from segregation that creates disparity where low-income families tend to live in impoverished communities where crime is much more rampant. Habitat certainly can’t affect wages. There’s not much we can do in that regard.”

Habitat has been doing its work in Memphis since 1983, helping more than 490 first-time homebuyers over that span between then and now secure affordable mortgages. Habitat has also completed rehabilitation and home modification projects in partnership with more than 350 local homeowners.

David Bowers joined this week’s panel of experts at the civil rights museum and picked up on the point Spencer stressed to High Ground that an honest discussion about housing needs to include a lot more than that.

Bowers is the vice president and Mid-Atlantic market leader for Enterprise Community Partners Inc., whose work includes facilitating affordable housing and community development transactions and policy implementation. Since David joined Enterprise in 2004, it’s invested more than $750 million in supporting affordable housing efforts.

His group works in collaboration with public and private stakeholders in the Baltimore and Washington D.C. metros.

“You have to connect this conversation to things beyond housing,” he said, “because we’re having a conversation about fixing things not everybody thinks are broken.”

Not everyone, in other words, is as equally invested in the same outcome that comes after solving the challenge of affordable housing. “You have to have a conversation, and be honest,” Bowers said.

It means asking questions like, “Do we want to have poor people around us? Do we only want people who look like us living around us?” The implication being, if a certain group of people don’t, they’re of course not likely to want to get behind fixing the cost of housing.

Civil rights attorney Areva Martin hosted the discussion and framed it within the context of the fact that “significant wealth and housing disparities between racial groups” still remain. That’s despite the fact that the Fair Housing Act, according to Habitat, “protects people from discrimination when they are renting, buying or securing financing for any housing. The prohibitions specifically cover discrimination because of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability and the presence of children.”

“We want people to be advocates and voices, so we obviously have to come together to speak louder and be advocates for low-income families who don’t really have a voice,” Spencer said. “Who don’t really have an idea how to change the trajectory of their own lives.

We know low-income families have to work almost twice as much as a regular person in order to just afford a two-bedroom apartment in Memphis in a community of choice. Affordable housing means a family can live in a safe, decent space."

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Andy Meek.