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Opinion: Fair Housing Month is over. “I’m tired of talking about race and I don’t know anyone with a disability.”

As of April 2024, “Fifty-seven percent of all respondents in a recent Zillow survey reported experiencing housing discrimination of some kind. However, fewer than half of respondents said fair housing is important to them or their families — highlighting how much work is needed to educate people about these laws.”

Yet, April 2024 marked exactly fifty-six years since federal fair housing became the law of the land.

How is that possible?

Over the last year, I believe some of the statements I have heard (at various events and meetings in support of fair housing) throughout the nation give a peek into a growing sentiment of fatigue and even a bit of tribalism. Such statements include:

“I am tired of talking about race.”

Fact check: Although homes on average have appreciated in the last several years, FHFA found that time adjustments (since the market has changed so fast in the last few years) in majority-Black areas were scarcer (meaning a loss of appreciation, value and ultimately wealth during the historic, “what dreams are made of” gains of the last several years).

“I don’t work with anyone with a disability so how is this relevant.” 

Fact check: “Disability” is the most reported fair housing violation and is not always immediately discernible.

“Why are we still talking about ‘redlining’ when that was outlawed decades ago?”

Fact check: Did you know that the last DOJ ‘redlining’ settlement occurred in February 2024 and there are upwards of thirty ‘redlining’ investigations happening now by the DOJ? Also, did you know that this was the 12th ‘redlining’ settlement since just 2021? ‘Redlining’ is not simply a relic of the past – we must vigilantly watch for it now too. It was outlawed but certainly still happens.

“I don’t really want to discuss those other issues. They aren’t relevant. I’m only here to learn about ________.”

Fact check: Of the over nineteen fair housing protected classes (see below), not one has been free of a violation just since this decade began – not one since 2020. This indicates that each protected group needs attention and discussion.

Those are just a few of the expressions I have heard while chatting with other fair housing educators and advocates nationwide. I can only imagine what those who have been uninvolved in advocacy work are thinking when someone mutters, “But what about fair housing?” Good grief!

“Rising tides lift all ships”

Whenever I give a talk on the history of fair housing, I often share this quote attributed to President Kennedy (he said it in a speech but he likely was not the first to say it): “Rising tides lift all ships.”

That principle has been paramount to the expansion of fair housing laws. How so? Did you know in 1968, federal fair housing laws provided protections no matter one’s:

  1. Race
  2. Color
  3. Religion
  4. National origin

That was it. 

Why? Lest we forget, the journey to federal fair housing was predicated on the Civil Rights Movement to end racial discrimination and it was Dr. King’s horrific assassination that was the final straw to get fair housing laws codified federally. 

And, as the “tide” rose to end specifically racial discrimination in housing, protected classes have thankfully been expanded upon and new categories are emerging. Today, through the necessary, difficult and long-suffering work of various special interest groups, we now have protections, whether at the federal, state or local levels for:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Sex 
  • Familial status 
  • National origin 
  • Disability (this has evolved to “a person that uses an assistive device”)
  • Religion 
  • Age 
  • Ancestry 
  • Sexual orientation 
  • Gender identity 
  • Marital status 
  • Military status 
  • Domestic violence victims 
  • Source of income 
  • Genetic information 
  • Pregnancy 
  • Fair chance/reentry/criminal record history

But there is a difference between taking up a special interest, understanding that “rising tides lift all ships”, versus disparaging and abandoning other protected classes and disadvantaged groups.

“The Boat” We’re All In Despite Finding the “M” and “E” in “Team”

To know that almost sixty percent of those surveyed (in the study mentioned above) experienced unfair housing indicates that part of the way forward is still to have special interest groups that can go wide and deep into the needs and concerns of a special interest group. But, it is not productive to be “us vs. them”. Instead, we can better serve our communities (as real estate professionals) when we have a mindset of “All for one and one for all!”.

When we bring exclusionary tribalism to fair housing (which is antithetical to fair housing laws that strive for inclusion) it reminds me of my freshman year on the novice crew team at the University of Michigan (during its inaugural year as a varsity sport at a D1 university). Even if you are not fond of boats, you can likely understand that in a boat of two, four, or eight people, if one person either stops rowing, rows without being mindful of the others in the boat, or intentionally rows against the direction the boat is going, the boat will likely not go anywhere and may even capsize. 

In a boat of novices, I learned all too well the chaos that ensues when there is not a collective effort nor collaborative energy. Case in point: at the start of a tense race, to my horror, a storm began. At that moment, I learned there may not be an “I” in “team” but we each instantly found and put together the “m” and the “e’” (me) in “team”, yeesh! 

With every rower for herself, our boat capsized during what felt like the “storm of the century” while sitting on a couple slabs of wood in the middle of Belleville Lake with no life jackets. It literally became “sink or swim” time. 

The race was delayed a few minutes to let the storm pass, giving us time to regroup. We had just enough time to prioritize working collectively in the same direction for our second attempt. After being flung wildly into the lake, we realized for this second go-round that “all for one and one for all” was not simply a corny reminder of the Three Musketeers but rather was the only way forward – despite the climate of fear surrounding us – to our mutual destination that we all wanted to reach.

Coaching’s Corner: “All for One and One for All!”

In advocating for fair housing, we also do not have “life jackets” because this is not a drill. 

Fair housing “capsizing” may push those in an already increasingly unaffordable housing market with many private investors to forgo homeownership altogether. Special interest groups to ensure understanding and advocacy of a specific protected class is needed but there are other interests within (and not yet in) this “fair housing boat”. 

As homeownership advocates, which gives way to also being fair housing advocates, we are all in the same boat, where consideration and collaboration are key so let’s give thought to:

  • What special interest(s) do I have in fair housing? (Do I have a personal story? Was I influenced by the needs of a particular client or community member?)
  • How can I engage my colleagues and other housing advocates to support this special interest too?

How can I be mindful and extend support to other fair housing protected classes that (if I am honest with myself) have not been on my radar?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of HousingWire’s editorial department and its owners.

To contact the editor responsible for this piece: [email protected]

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