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Reflecting on the Legacy of the Fair Housing Act in Virginia

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By Laura Dobbs, staff attorney at Virginia Poverty Law Center, and 2019 Equal Justice Works Fellow

In April, we celebrate the anniversary of the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, a national law that prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, color, national origin, religion, and gender. The Fair Housing Act as it stands today also prohibits discrimination based on disability and family status. Virginia’s Fair Housing Act extends discrimination protections based on veteran status, elderliness, sexual orientation, and source of funds. Everyone belongs to one or more protected classes, and we should all benefit from the ideals of Fair Housing.

Everyone belongs to one or more protected classes, and we should all benefit from the ideals of Fair Housing.

There seems to be a common misperception of what the Fair Housing Act requires; some think it means treating everyone the same. Yet it is more nuanced than that. The façade of “treating everyone the same” needs to be placed in the context of decades of housing discrimination and how seemingly neutral policies perpetuate housing segregation.

To this day, cities in Virginia remain largely segregated and continue to suffer from racially discriminatory practices of previous decades, such as race based zoning ordinances, restrictive covenants, red lining, and highway construction through once thriving Black neighborhoods. At the same time the Federal Housing Administration subsidized “white flight” to the suburbs with attractive mortgage guarantees, cities like Richmond used federal dollars to destroy Black neighborhoods in the name of “slum clearance” and relocate displaced families into public housing. In the 1950s alone, Richmond destroyed 4,700 units of housing in Black neighborhoods and replaced them with 1,736 units of public housing. Richmond’s four largest public housing developments, Creighton Court, Whitcomb Court, Fairfield Court, and Mosby Court, are concentrated within an approximately one-mile radius in the city’s east end.

Public housing residents in Richmond are almost exclusively Black and are among the city’s most deeply impoverished. For instance, in Creighton Court, 97% of current heads of household identify as Black compared with 46%  Black in the city overall. Today, households receiving HUD housing assistance live on average incomes of $15,000 a year.

After decades of constructed segregation, Congress passed a new housing act in 1974 that sought to leverage the private market to solve the problems of public housing. Yet the stigma associated with public housing residents, such as those at the center of the “Chicago Myth”, carried over to the voucher program. In the late 1990s, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, sensitive to what had become the negative perception of “Section 8” vouchers, began to refer to the program as “Housing Choice Vouchers.” The name contrasts with the great lack of choice tenants actually have in finding safe and decent housing. Nonetheless cities like Richmond embraced this shift from traditional public housing to public-private partnerships.

Housing Choice Vouchers now represent about one third of the nation’s assisted housing, yet the stigma associated with the program remains the same. There is an assumption that voucher holders behave in a certain way and need deep subsidies due to some moral failing that makes them incapable of affording the housing. Just as racist housing policies of the Jim Crow and early Civil Rights era were couched in concerns about “morality” (i.e., it is not “moral” for a Black person to live with a white person), so are concerns about renting to voucher holders based on assumptions about the tenants’ “moral failings.”

Underlying negative assumptions about a person’s race or economic status is a judgment about that person that they are less than and undeserving. When a landlord refuses to rent to a voucher holder, because he fears that the person will “tear up” the property, the landlord is making an assumption about that person. This is the same pattern of assumptions that have long been made about Black people. Even if a landlord’s concern about renting to a voucher holder genuinely relates to the process and not the tenant, the disparate impact is the same: poor Black families are shut out of housing opportunities.

This year, I am taking a step back to celebrate the successes here in Virginia of advancing the ideals of Fair Housing. In 2020, Housing Justice Program Fellows mobilized tenants to speak directly with lawmakers in support of expanding anti-discrimination protections to more people, including voucher holders. That year, Virginia added source of funds, sexual orientation, gender identity, and veteran status to the list of protected classes in Virginia’s Fair Housing Act.

This year, I am taking a step back to celebrate the successes here in Virginia of advancing the ideals of Fair Housing.

With the addition of “source of funds” to the list of protected classes to Virginia’s Fair Housing Act, advocates were given a powerful tool to combat modern forms of housing discrimination. In October 2021, the Virginia Attorney General office filed lawsuits against 29 Richmond area real-estate companies and property managers for categorically rejecting prospective voucher holding tenants. With these lawsuits, Virginia is sending a clear message that all Virginians deserve the right to live where they choose, free from discrimination.

Virginia is sending a clear message that all Virginians deserve the right to live where they choose, free from discrimination.

With the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic harm to thousands of Virginia families, a new evolution of housing discrimination is emerging: some landlords are refusing to renew leases for tenants who received emergency rental assistance. Despite getting funds directly from the Virginia Rent Relief program and being made whole, some landlords are implementing policies that treat tenants who received assistance differently. Not only does this practice directly violate the Virginia Fair Housing Act , but it disproportionately harms Black families and families with young children. Black households account for almost 52% of those who received rent relief in Virginia; 67% of households served included children under 8 years old.

Advocates in Virginia are still grappling with how to respond to this new form of discrimination, but thanks in part to the efforts of cohort one of the Housing Justice Program Fellows, the incoming Housing Justice Program Fellows have a strong tool at their disposal: the Virginia Fair Housing Act.

Visit here to read more stories about the work of our Fellows and how they are advocating for policies and practices that protect the rights of all tenants.

The Housing Justice Program is made possible thanks to the generosity of The JPB Foundation and JPMorgan Chase & Co.

Learn more about becoming an Equal Justice Works Fellow