All Americans Deserve Access to Fair Housing | Commentary

Every January, our nation comes together to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. This important federal holiday marks the birth date of the most iconic leader of the civil rights movement. King dedicated his life to nonviolent activism against discrimination and to this day, the American people continue to benefit from his life and legacy.

There are many ways King’s legacy lives on. In particular, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 remains one of the most important pieces of legislation attributed to King’s legacy. Aimed at addressing the serious issue of residential segregation, the Fair Housing Act addresses discrimination in housing on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status or handicap. This includes systemic discrimination in mortgage lending.

In the lead up to the housing crisis, mortgage lenders engaged in the harmful and reckless practice of reverse red-lining, in which they targeted minority communities and individuals for subprime mortgages. While it was not immediately apparent that any particular agent of these mortgage lenders was guilty of maliciously discriminating against minority borrowers, studies and lawsuits have found minority borrowers were disproportionately given subprime mortgages, even after controlling for creditworthiness.

This practice of reverse red-lining set minority households up to be disproportionately affected by the negative effects of the housing crisis. These harmful effects persist today. Minority households and communities are being left behind as the modest housing recovery picks up. I am not sure how many members of Congress lived in public housing, but I did. My family, including my three sisters and mother and father, lived in a shack, a two-room shack. When I was a child, we moved to public housing and we were glad to do it. My father worked three jobs to get us out of public housing and into our first home, where my father still resides. We achieved our American dream. When tainted by devious practices and disparate impact, the dream of home ownership can turn into a nightmare.

Thankfully, the Fair Housing Act was designed specifically to address this kind of discrimination wherein the actions of an entity have a disparate impact on a particular group, even if malicious intent is not immediately apparent. Without the disparate impact standard under the Fair Housing Act, the minority borrowers who were discriminatorily steered to subprime mortgages in the lead up to the housing crisis would have no remedy, no legal recourse to address this unfair treatment. We are by no means a post-racial society, we are merely a society where modern-day discrimination is rarely explicit. Without the disparate impact standard, the Fair Housing Act would be seriously crippled in its ability to address modern-day discrimination.

By training, I am a United Methodist preacher. By occupation, I am a member of Congress. But I can tell you — the case that the Supreme Court will hear Wednesday — Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs, et al. v. The Inclusive Communities Project, Inc. — challenges this crucial element of the Fair Housing Act. That is why I recently joined with a bipartisan coalition of former and current members of Congress in signing onto an amicus brief to the Supreme Court for this case. The congressional amicus brief states that it was the intent of Congress for the Fair Housing Act to encompass the disparate impact standard. Foremost among the signatures were former Sens. Edward Brooke and Walter F. Mondale, two of the original co-sponsors of the Fair Housing Act.

It was in the immediate aftermath of the tragic assassination of King that Congress was compelled to enact the Fair Housing Act. King understood the importance of addressing de facto segregation and covert discrimination, and so did the members of Congress who passed the Fair Housing Act. It would be an affront to the legacy of King, as well as to those members of Congress who sought to honor the life of King by passing the Fair Housing Act, to set back decades of progress in fair housing with this case.

As we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I am poignantly reminded of his legacy in fair housing and I sincerely hope that the Supreme Court will make the right decision in this case by affirming that the Fair Housing Act unequivocally prohibits actions that have the effect of disproportionately denying housing to marginalized communities.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver II, D-Mo., serves on the House Committee on Financial Services.