Several of the nation’s leading civil rights organizations filed amicus briefs this week urging the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in Magner v. Gallagher that the federal Fair Housing Act can be enforced when a seemingly neutral housing policy results in discrimination.
The Opportunity Agenda joined AARP, ACLU, The Lawyers’ Committee For Civil Rights Under Law and the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund in filing briefs with the court. (The Equal Justice Society signed on to the Opportunity Agenda brief.) Twelve state attorneys general also filed briefs in favor of fair housing law enforcement.
The Supreme Court will hear arguments in this case on February 29.
What’s at stake in Magner is the obligation of cities and towns to protect equal opportunity in housing. That responsibility includes avoiding unnecessary policies that discriminate in practice, as well as those that are intentionally discriminatory.
For more than 40 years, our courts have said that the Fair Housing Act prohibits both old school bigotry in housing, and policies that have the unnecessary effect of excluding qualified people based on their race, disability, or other factors. In Magner, the Supreme Court will be deciding whether that longstanding, commonsense interpretation will continue, or whether only intentional discrimination can ever violate the Fair Housing Act.
The plaintiffs in the case are building owners in St. Paul, Minn., who rent their properties to working class people, including many African Americans. They say that the city is trying to push them and other rental owners out of town, in favor of owner-occupied housing, with the practical effect of excluding many African Americans from any housing in the city. According to the property owners, the city is using excessive and often false code enforcement against these owners, but leaving alone owners who live in their homes.
The plaintiffs challenged the City of St. Paul’s policy in federal court under the Fair Housing Act. The Act, part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of dwellings, based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status and disability.
Passage of the Fair Housing Act was not easy. From 1966 to 1967, Congress was unable to garner a strong enough majority for its passage. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was closely associated with the fair housing legislation since the 1966 open housing marches in Chicago. When Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, President Johnson urged Congress to pass the fair housing act as a tribute to Dr. King.
During this same time period, the deaths of our soldiers in Vietnam fell heaviest upon young, poor African Americans and Hispanics. The families of these soldiers could not purchase or rent homes in certain residential developments on account of their race or national origin. Senators Edward Brooke and Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts argued strongly for the passage of this legislation. In particular, Senator Brooke, the first African American ever to be elected to the Senate by popular vote, spoke personally of his return from World War II and his inability to provide a home of his choice for his new family because of his race.
Despite the progress we’ve made as a nation more than four decades after passage of the Fair Housing Act, significant obstacles to equal opportunity still exist, particularly when it comes to housing and homeownership. There are still some real estate agents, landlords, and others who practice intentional discrimination against people of color, families with children, people with disabilities, and other Americans.
But more often these days, local governments and real estate corporations engage in unjustified and unnecessary practices with the practical effect of discriminating against well-qualified Americans. Some cities and towns, for example, prohibit the building of smaller homes or apartments that working people could afford, which in many places excludes most people of color. That means certain Americans are unfairly and unnecessarily cut off from opportunities like quality schools, jobs, and business possibilities.
That’s bad for all of us, and the Supreme Court should reaffirm that the law forbids it by ruling in favor of the plaintiffs in Magner.