The road toward fair housing

FEDERAL fair housing law has been around a long time. But only now is it getting the enforcement weight it needs. A new bill, with bipartisan support in Congress and administration approval, sets up a system of administrative law judges with the authority to impose fines or issue injunctions. At present, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) can only offer to conciliate among the parties involved in a dispute. The bill has passed the House, 376-23, and ought to receive similar backing when the Senate takes it up.

The federal law must be strengthened if it is to serve as a bulwark against housing discrimination. Though many of the most blatant practices have been ended, racial bias in the selling and renting of housing remains a serious problem. A nationwide HUD survey in the early '80s found that black families in the United States have a 48 percent chance of facing discrimination when buying and a 72 percent chance when renting. Recent regional studies confirm those findings.

Over the years, efforts to put teeth in the bill were blocked by concerns over the constitutional rights of real estate agents and others who might be the target of fair housing suits. But those concerns have been allayed by a rather simple compromise: The new law specifies that either party in a suit may choose a jury trial in federal court, instead of the administrative law judge process.

In the long run, the threat of court action will probably encourage early settlement of most cases. Under the law, HUD will have 100 days to reconcile the parties before finding ``reasonable cause'' and initiating enforcement. Only about one-quarter of the housing discrimination cases that come to the attention of HUD are handled there; most are referred to the states. State laws would have to conform with the new federal statute.

The bill now moving through Congress includes discrimination against families with young children and against the disabled. Sanctions against bias in these areas are thus likely to become more uniform throughout the US.

This fair housing update and strengthening fits into the continuing process of prying discrimination from key institutions in society and creating more openness for all. Some may see the process as trampling on their right to sell or rent to whom they want. Others defend their right to live where their incomes and inclinations take them.

The consensus is that abridgment of the latter right can no longer be tolerated. That's the only road toward justice for all, and we're heartened that the US continues to travel it.

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