Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. moved to Chicago in 1966 to “end slums.” A week after he was assassinated in 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act, which prohibited housing discrimination based on race, religion, or national origin.
Maria Krysan, head of the sociology department at the University of Illinois at Chicago and co-author of the book Cycle of Segregation, joined WBEZ host Melba Lara to talk about the history of the Fair Housing Act and what housing discrimination looks like in Chicago today.
How the legislation was received
Maria Krysan: It’s the third major piece of civil rights legislation, after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It was among the most hotly contested of these pieces of legislation. It was in the works for years before it was finally passed and it was controversial because it was literally hitting whites too close to home, so to speak. People said, “You can’t tell me what to do with my own properties,” so it was just a really controversial piece of legislation.
How the Fair Housing Act changed discrimination
Krysan: The successes — nationally and here in Chicago — are that it’s true that blatant discrimination in accessing housing has declined. You don’t get on Craigslist and see “no blacks” for an apartment listing rental, for example. At the time, in 1968, it was widespread; it dominated the housing market.
Now we’re at a time, though, that substantially fewer people experience that. It’s not given that you’re going to have that experience renting or buying a place, but it’s not none. There is still discrimination. What’s happened with discrimination is that it’s gone underground. The ads have gone from “we don’t want black people to live here” to much more subtle [messaging].
What housing discrimination looks like today
Krysan: In that case, it might be instead of explicitly telling someone that they don’t rent to black people, if a landlord knows that the person inquiring is African-American, they may say, “Oh, I’m sorry. We just rented it last week.” Or they may say that your credit scores aren’t good enough. It’s moved from exclusionary discrimination, which is “No, you can’t live here” and “No, I won’t give you a mortgage loan,” to something that’s more non-exclusionary — “I’ll give you a loan, but it won’t be a very good loan, a subprime market loan that’s more expensive.”
What can be done where the Fair Housing Act falls short
Krysan: The Fair Housing Act was really both about the enforcement of nondiscrimination but it was also about taking affirmative steps to break down the barriers to integrated communities. So a place like Oak Park is an example of a community that has affirmatively furthered fair housing in a number of ways by specifically trying to encourage an integrated community, and create a community that’s welcoming people of all races and ethnicities. So it’s both fighting discrimination and taking active steps: having a human relations commission, advertising, and PR campaigns that say, “We welcome everyone in our village or community.”
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire interview, which was adapted for the web by Arionne Nettles.