50 Years Later, a Promise Still Unfulfilled


As D.C. grapples with ensuring inclusive communities across the city, Jubilee Housing advances practices that take into account the historical racism that has contributed to division and disparity in the District. Housing discrimination and affordability have been significant factors in perpetuating inequity. A recent panel discussion, sponsored by The Atlantic and Fannie Mae to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Fair Housing Act, underscored that point.

Passed within days of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, the law made it illegal to refuse to sell or rent to any person of a protected class. The law is considered a landmark achievement of the civil rights era, but panelists emphasized that much work is yet to be done to ensure equal access to housing.

“Today, two-thirds of African-Americans live in low-opportunity settings,” said Sheryll Cashin, a professor of law, civil rights, and social justice at Georgetown Law. “Everywhere you turn in a low-opportunity setting, you are constrained in terms of access to jobs, education, and networks.”

Although the law made it illegal to discriminate against people seeking housing based on their race, gender, religion, disability, familial status, national origin, or sexual orientation, racist and opportunistic bankers, realtors, and government officials still found ways to marginalize black families seeking housing.

The practice of “redlining,” or denying financial services to a community because of its racial composition, has long propagated housing segregation. In addition, banks continued to deny loans and mortgages to black families, effectively shutting them out of white, middle-class communities.

Because redlining and other discriminatory practices closed them off from lending sources, many black families were forced to purchase homes using contracts with grossly inflated prices. This practice, known as “contract selling,” targeted vulnerable black homebuyers and forced them to pay exorbitant fees for loan maintenance until all payments were made to the seller. Although blatantly predatory and discriminatory, contract selling remains legal today.

“When you’re desperate for housing and desperate for a place to raise your kids, you do desperate things,” said Ralph Blessing, a former student organizer with the Contract Buyers League.

Decades of these racially discriminatory housing practices have compounded the disparities black communities struggle with today.

“We can’t look at housing separate from everything else,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “Housing is connected with every other issue we’re talking about – education, transportation, employment, even water affordability – and understanding how all those threads bear on this question of equity and housing is important.”

Jubilee understands its work as combating structural inequity and creating justice through housing—justice housing. By building homes that are deeply affordable, have on-site and nearby programs, and are in a thriving neighborhood, we create an antidote to the divisions that threaten our social fabric. In justice housing, all members of the community are welcomed and valued.