For a fair housing law that works

Twelve years after Congress enactd legislation outlawing racial discrimination in the sale or rental of housing, minorities continue to run up against racial barriers in the housing market. A recent survey of real estate brokers and rental agents in 40 US metropolitan areas, for instance, found that a black person still has a 48 percent chance of encountering racial discrimination when trying to buy a home and an 85 percent chance when seeking to rent one. Studies show housing discrimination also affects other minorities and women, is widespread, and occurs in all sections of the US. One reason for this lingering blotch on America's civil rights record is that the Fair Housing Act of 1968 failed to give the federal government enough power to enforce the law.

Legislation now pending in both houses of Congress would remedy this. Proposed amendments to the Fair Housing Act would give the US Department of Housing and Urban Development new, much needed authority to conduct hearings and investigations, render judgments, and impose fines of up to $10,000 against violators. In short, they would create an administrative enforcement system, subject to judicial review, which would ensure victims of housing discrimination that their complaints would be heard without the long delays and high level costs involved in the current system.

Under present law, HUD cannot bring legal action against those charged with discrimination but is limited to settling disputes by conciliation. If that fails, individuals must turn to the courts for relief -- a time-consuming, expensive, and frequently futile process that discourages all but the most determined victims from seeking redress. As one civil rights leader puts it, "It doesn't make much sense to give a person a judgment after the apartment is gone or the house is sold." The 1968 Civil Rights Act does empower the Justice Department to take legal action on its own but only if a "pattern or practice" of housing discrimination is shown to exist.

As a practical matter, this has left victims of "steering" and "redlining" and some of the other, more subtle forms of discrimination largely defenseless. Representative Don Edwards of California, chief sponsor of the amendments before the House, points out that only 300 of the 3,000 housing discrimination complaints filed last year were resolved by conciliation. "It just doesn't work ," he stresses.

The proposed changes in the fair housing law are widely supported by civil rights and labor groups -- some call it the most important civil rights legislation in a decade -- and by the Carter administration. But the amendments have stirred vigorous opposition from realtors and some congressmen concerned about the possibility of federal intrusion into zoning and other land-use areas traditionally the preserve of state and local governments. In an effort to answer these concerns, the House bill was refined and in the process weakened somewhat. However, efforts to exempt appraisers and insurance companies from the antidiscrimination provisions were properly rebuffed. And any further attempts to alter the bill to allow racial factors to be used in setting the value of a dwelling ought to be resisted. The House bill in its present form holds out the promise of stronger, more effective enforcement, especially in the 30 states that do not already have comparable enforcement procedures in place.

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