Not too late for fair housing

Time is getting critically short for Congress to enact in this legislative session urgently needed changes in the nation's fair housing law. The House has passed and the Senate Judiciary Committee has reported out proposed amendments that would put teeth in the now largely ineffectual Fair Housing Act of 1968. The sad fact is that more than a decade after Congress sought to outlaw discrimination in the sale and rental of housing by enactment of the 1968 law, nationwide surveys indicate that discrimination in the real estate market is still widespread.

The Fair Housing Act's shortcoming was its failure to give federal housing officials the needed authority to enforce the law. The pending amendments would give the Department of Housing and Urban Development the necessary administrative power to hear cases of alleged discrimination and to impose fines up to $10,000 against anyone found to have denied an applicant a house or an apartment because of race, religion, or sex.

Under present law, HUD cannot bring legal action but is limited to settling disputes through conciliation. Experience has proved this to be a largely futile process. Very few discrimination complaints are successfully resolved, and victims are left to seek relief in the courts -- a costly and time-consuming endeavor that discourages all but the most determined victims of discrimination from seeking redress.

Both House and Senate versions include the necessary enforcement mechanism to fulfill Congress's commitment to fair housing, although the bill awaiting floor action in the Senate has been watered down somewhat in response to heavy lobbying from real estate interests. The major objections of the real estate industry concerning federal involvement in zoning cases, the filing of class-action suits, and the hearing of novel issues of law or fact have been answered in the Senate bill. Such questions would be left to the courts to settle. But, as in the House bill, the Senate amendments give HUD important enforcement authority over individual complaints. Prospective home-buyers and renters would be assured speedy action and enforcement by administrative judges with the background and expertise to handle housing disputes.

In short, there is no reason -- other than election-year timidity on the part of some legislators -- for the Senate not to enact this legislation President Carter and civil rights leaders have properly called the most important civil rights bill to come before Congress in a decade. Time is running out, but if Majority Leader Byrd acts quickly, floor action could still be scheduled and the minor differences between the House and Senate versions worked out before Congress adjourns, possibly as early as October 4. It is high time to make fair housing a reality and not just a promise for all Americans.

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