Local housing experts applaud Biden executive order fighting housing discrimination

The order comes over 50 years after the Fair Housing Act first condemned illegal biases in the real estate market.
Joe Biden signing
Posted at 3:49 PM, Feb 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-01 20:47:06-05

CINCINNATI — Advocates for fair housing in the Cincinnati area welcome President Joe Biden's executive order announcing measures to combat housing discrimination, which now happens "much more covertly," one expert said.

Jeniece Jones is the executive director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal, also known as HOME. The agency works to eliminate housing discrimination in the Cincinnati area.

“As a fair housing organization and a civil rights organization, HOME applauds this executive order for really focusing on historical patterns of racial segregation and discrimination," Jones said.

Experts say the executive order’s directives will advance their efforts to generate access to equitable housing through reversing some of the legal theories endorsed during the Trump administration.

“Anything that can help in the free and fair trade of homeownership and promoting homeownership for everyone in our community, we are 100% supportive,” said Rich Fletcher, the CEO of the Cincinnati Area Board of Realtors.

Biden issued the executive order Jan. 26. It calls on the Department of Housing and Urban Development to review its programs and policies to make sure it is operating according to the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

The FHA calls for the elimination of illegally discriminating against people amid dealings within the housing sector based on race, color, familial status, religion, disability, sex, or national origin. The FHA also expands fair housing by acknowledging its role in historical patterns of racial segregation and discrimination.

John Schrider, attorney at law and director of the Legal Aid Society of Southwest Ohio, said Obama-era regulations meant to improve fair housing in federal, state and local governments were stymied by the Trump administration. Biden’s executive order looks to make sure those regulations and policies are back on task with expanding housing rights.

Legal experts, fair housing advocates and real estate professionals say that the executive order most directly impacts work at the national level. Still, the attention given toward promoting fair housing is appreciated and felt in municipalities and local communities like those in Cincinnati.

Jones said efforts toward fair housing are still important because marginalized groups like people of color, as well as those with children and disabilities, are discriminated against in the housing market every day.

“We found that now discrimination tends to happen much more covertly," Jones said. "So that's why HOME still has a robust housing investigation program where we investigate claims of illegal discrimination.”

Housing discrimination also intersects with gentrification, a phenomenon that has been transforming various parts of Cincinnati in recent years.

It’s common for the HOME staff to hear from longtime residents of marginalized backgrounds in developing areas who argue they are receiving inferior treatment from property managers and local officials in comparison to their newer, more affluent neighbors. Some residents feel they do not have a say in the changes happening to their neighborhoods.

The people who tend to be most adversely affected by gentrification tend to also be members of protected classes in the FHA.

Jones said HUD should work with local governments that receive HUD funds to ensure they are enforcing items that shut down illegal discrimination.

One method of doing this is to tie HUD’s community development block grants to what regions are doing to erase discrimination on an ongoing basis. These grants are allocated to a number of neighborhood improvement costs including infrastructure, economic development, housing rehabilitation and homeowner assistance.

Jones thinks making good on Biden’s order would include enforcing measures at the state and local level that advance fair and affordable housing while incentivizing Black homeownership.

The rate of Black homeownership in Cincinnati is 30 percentage points lower than it is for whites, Jones said. This leads to a significant disparity in generational wealth. When Black people are on an unequal playing field to build equity, attain resources to start small businesses, or have borrowing power for things like business and student loans, this also means that Black people have less wealth and fewer assets to pass on to future generations.

Schrider pointed out Cincinnati's own history of discriminatory programs and policies, despite the fact the city has an ordinance on fair housing.

Local policies offer tax abatements that favor the rich, an inequality that affects paths to homeownership. He also noted that African Americans have struggled to buy homes due to redlining, as well as federal, state and local policies.

Historical events in the city’s urban development were particularly problematic. Notorious examples include the construction of Interstate-75, which cut through the West End, as well as I-71, which ran through Evanston and other predominantly Black neighborhoods. Such developments triggered massive displacement — an issue with after-effects that continue to affect Black Cincinnati residents to this day.

“These problems continue, and these policies continue in that sometimes they're deliberate, and sometimes they're happening without people paying enough attention to them,” Schrider said. “(F)or example, if we're going to give tax abatements to people who make renovations on their homes, we should make sure that everyone has an opportunity to take advantage of that program instead of just wealthy individuals and white neighborhoods.”

Schrider has played a role in some of Cincinnati’s most definitive, historical efforts to expand fair housing access. In the 1970s, he took part in a lawsuit in which public housing residents fought to expand the operations of the Cincinnati Metropolitan Housing Authority. The suit pushed for housing and housing choice vouchers to be provided in other parts of Hamilton County. It had a significant impact on broadening the area’s housing opportunities for residents of various backgrounds.

Like Jones, Schrider said discrimination is a large, ongoing issue. Still, he is not concerned about courts pushing back on Biden’s executive order. Despite the divisiveness plaguing America, he said sociological data shows most Americans support fair housing practices. He also points to the fact that the order is trying to bring the housing market’s ethical guidelines back to where they were four years ago.

Mark Quarry, the director of Government Affairs at the Cincinnati Area Board of Realtors, said following the golden rule while facilitating real estate transactions is a core principle for Realtors to follow.

“(I)t’s a moral incentive for us to increase homeownership for everyone, regardless of ethnicity or anything,” Quarry said.

His colleague Fletcher agrees, and said that taking on the ethical responsibility of advancing inclusive and fair housing is something that distinguishes Realtors from real-estate agents. He conceded there is a business incentive to pushing for inclusive housing access, too.

“(A)nytime you restrict a segment of our population, whatever that segment is, from engaging in economic opportunity, it's harmful for the entire community, because it's really limiting the pool of the economy, right? So, we really want to help encourage people to be able to buy a home...The data and the research shows us that for most Americans, the number one source of wealth generation is homeownership.”

Fletcher credits city council for taking a stronger stance on promoting fair access in recent years. The work of the Cincinnati Area Board of Realtors, HOME and the Legal Aid Society occasionally intersect in their individual efforts to advance fair housing practices in the region. Schrider also said the Legal Aid Society is working on an initiative called “Roadmap to a More Open City.” The goal of the project is to expand homeownership opportunities, particularly among Blacks and other marginalized groups, so as to increase wealth for the wider community. He senses Biden’s order will give the initiative even more power and momentum.

Jones said that while the executive order is a forceful step in the right direction, the issue of housing discrimination surpasses what is under HUD’s jurisdiction. She said other actions that could keep advancing the cause would be for Congress to amend the FHA and pass the Equality Act. That act protects Americans from discrimination based on sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.

She also pointed to the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA), an act pushing for insured institutions to support the credit needs of communities, particularly in low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. Jones argues that banks should create products and incentives that are focused on Black homeowners. Creating Black wealth helps keep vulnerable Black people in their homes. Lastly, she referenced the need to implement measures to strengthen schools, as there is a strong tie between housing discrimination and disinvestment in homes that also leads to disinvestment in public education.

“If those communities are truly communities of opportunity, then those negative effects tend to dissipate,” Jones said. “[I]t’s time to carry it forward, put the rubber towards the road and see how it bears out in our community.”

Monique John covers gentrification for WCPO 9. She is part of our Report For America donor-supported journalism program. Read more about RFA here.

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