GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — For generations, federal, state and local governments passed and enforced policies that led to racial segregation. While redlining may have been the most impactful, lending programs, tax policies and other means also prevented Black Americans from taking advantage of the housing market.
But communities of color weren’t the only ones forced to fight for fair housing rights.
Today, federal laws detail seven protected classes. Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act covers 10. It wasn’t always that way. The fight for fair housing practices took decades, spurred by action across the country, including West Michigan.
REDLINING AND BEYOND
The practice of redlining was established in the 1930s by the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation. After years of bailing out banks following the Great Depression, the federal program devised an analysis to help banks in the future, identifying which neighborhoods would make for the safest investments and which would be the riskiest. In doing so, immigrants, impoverished families and especially Black Americans were kept out of all but the worst neighborhoods. Banks used HOLC maps for years and further segregated Grand Rapids’ already divided community.
Grand Valley State University Professor Matthew Daley said even more practices came into play once the Federal Housing Authority was founded.
“The (HOLC) is done in 1936. They stop (lending). Their last mortgage is done in 1951 and they go away. The FHA is the new system,” Daley told News 8. “When FHA takes over, they’re going to then increasingly have more restrictive policies that really privilege new construction, heavy levels of zoning and restrictions and essentially do not lend to African Americans, Latinx communities, (Asian Americans), they are going to play that game really hard and that’s going to go forward for years to come.”
In addition to government restrictions, property owners were allowed to place restrictive covenants on their properties. The practice was meant to help protect the long-term value of a property, restricting how owners and tenants can use it, but they were also used to formalize bigotry in ink.
In a 2021 presentation to the Grand Rapids Historical Society, Liz Keegan of the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan explained how detailed the covenants could be. One example was a covenant on a development in Seattle in the 1930s. It stated, “no property in said addition shall at any time be sold, conveyed, rented or leased in whole or in part to any person or persons not of the White or Caucasian race.” The covenant also detailed the only acceptable form for a person of color to live on the property is if they are a “domestic servant” to the occupant of one of the properties.
It happened here in West Michigan, too. With help from the GRHS, Keegan dug up a restrictive covenant from Kent County. The covenant, dated 1949, restricted two lots from a development from being “sold to or occupied by any person with a perceptible strain of negro blood.”
That covenant was filed one year after those pacts were supposed to be outlawed by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling. It illustrated that advocates were going to have to work at every level — local, statewide and nationwide — to make meaningful progress.
THE FIGHT FOR THE CIVIL RIGHTS ACT
The fight for fair housing was won over a culmination of many smaller battles. Supreme Court rulings in the 1940s and 1950s and rising demands from Black communities and their allies moved equal rights forward, ultimately leading to the landmark signing of the 1968 Civil Rights Act.
But the baseline starts in 1896. At the turn of the 20th century, America was firmly entrenched in Jim Crow laws — a racial caste system that relegated African Americans to second-class citizens.
The Jim Crow system was cemented by the U.S. Supreme Court in its 1896 ruling of Plessy v. Ferguson, which ruled that racial segregation laws did not inherently violate the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment that guarantees all citizens “equal protection of the laws.” The “separate but equal” doctrine considered separate accommodations legal as long as equal services or accommodations were provided. While that doctrine technically stood as the law of the land, it was rarely enforced or practiced.
Michigan, like many northern states, was quicker to adopt equal rights policies. Slavery was outlawed by the Northwest Ordinance, before Michigan was granted statehood. Legislation dating back to 1867 prohibited racial segregation in public schools. And in 1869, the state ruled that life insurance companies couldn’t treat Black customers and different that white customers.
According to the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, the state “(increased) the protections against discrimination in public accommodations” three times, passing laws in 1937, 1952 and 1956. And in the midst of the Auburn Hills land sale, the city of Grand Rapids even passed its own ordinance in 1963 to prohibit housing discrimination based on race, skin color, religion, ancestry or national origin.
But make no mistake, Jim Crow laws and racism were still prevalent across the state through the 1950s.
One of the first major fair housing victories came in 1948 in the Supreme Court’s ruling of Shelley v. Kraemer. The ruling held that restrictive covenants that prohibited sales based on race were unconstitutional. The experts at Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute said the ruling was historic in that it “not only eliminated this common method of promoting racial residential segregation, but also provided ammunition for future Supreme Court Justices looking to enforce the Equal Protection Clause.”
“Separate but equal” was officially rejected in the Supreme Court’s ruling in 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. In the opinion delivered by Chief Justice Earl Warren, he said: “This disposition makes unnecessary any discussion whether such segregation also violates the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.”
While Warren was able to take down “separate but equal,” it was Congress that ultimately killed Jim Crow.
In June 1963, with tensions rising and the voices calling for equal rights growing stronger, President John F. Kennedy pushed Congress to pass a comprehensive civil rights bill. After Kennedy’s assassination that November, President Lyndon B. Johnson took up the charge. Congress put together what is known as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
It prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, skin color, religion, gender or national origin in employment, public accommodations or federally funded programs. It also strengthened school desegregation in the wake of 1954’s SCOTUS ruling and reinforced voting rights.
The 1964 signing was a major victory but was only the foundation that is still being built upon. Equal rights advocates continued to fight, calling for the 1964 laws to be expanded, with a strong emphasis on fair housing.
Members of Congress had worked on a fair housing bill for two years but had yet to find a bill that could win over a majority in both chambers. That changed on April 4, 1968.
That day, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. Riots sparked in the wake of his death. Despite calls for peace, unrest broke out in nearly 200 cities, leaving 43 people dead and thousands injured. Whether Congress finally felt the desperation and anger that fueled the riots is left to the eye of the beholder, but within days of King’s death, Congress had put together a new set of bills: the Civil Rights Act of 1968. One week after King was gunned down outside of his hotel room, President Johnson signed it into law.
The 1968 Act expanded on previous legislation, including the long-anticipated ban on discrimination in housing sales, rentals or financing.
PROTECTING THOSE RIGHTS
Beyond the federal level, Michigan has its own slate of civil rights protections. The Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act was passed in 1976. The law has since been amended more than a dozen times, but as of today, in Michigan it is illegal to discriminate against someone seeking employment or housing based on the person’s religion, race, skin color, national origin, age, gender, height, weight, familial status or marital status.
With its newly formed majority, Democrats in the Legislature have already introduced a bill to amend the act again, this time extending or clarifying protections based on gender identity and sexual orientation.
Regardless of the number of protections, there will always be people needed to protect those rights and help people with discrimination cases. That’s where Keegan and the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan enter the picture.
The organization is a part of a network of nonprofits that handles cases across the state. FHCWM serves 12 counties in West Michigan, including Kent, Ottawa, Allegan, Ionia and Muskegon.
“It’s a shared mission. We have slightly different models,” Keegan told News 8. “For example, the group out of Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti, they won’t train the housing industry, and I spend a lot of time training the housing industry. So they have different philosophies and models, but generally the goal is always how do we work together to end or prevent housing discrimination.”
Even though the organization has been handling cases for more than 40 years, Keegan said there is always room for improvement and new strategies.
“We take the cases and work them one by one while also trying to really address the policy level,” Keegan said. “If there’s something that we can develop as a best practice or a model that will help prevent housing discrimination, our center really wants to do both. You know, you have to address the leak in the faucet and then each drip, as well.”
Over those 40 years, fair housing claims have shifted. Race or skin color is no longer the top allegation for fair housing discrimination. In 2022, the most common allegations were based on a disability.
According to Keegan, the organization handled approximately 200 cases last year and covered 226 allegations (because some cases include multiple forms of alleged discrimination). Of the cases, 108 of them involved disability status, 68 involved a person’s race or skin color, 26 included familial status (single parents or families with children) and 21 had to do with source of income.
There are other cases that the organization investigates but there are times when they can’t take action.
“Unfortunately, a lot of the discrimination that happens is not illegal or it’s not illegal everywhere. Those are some systemic barriers,” Keegan said. “For example, for people that have a criminal history, having a criminal record is not fully protected. There is new guidance from (the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) that is really trying to help break open the lifetime ban (because it) can preclude people from accessing housing. And if we look at who might have a criminal record, we are going to see correlations with race, gender, age, all of those sorts of things.”
She continued: “The fair housing laws have come a long way and the list of protected classes is longer than it was in 1968 … but we still have a ways to go. There are still issues that are really preventing people from accessing quality housing.”
Besides the ones being introduced in the state Legislature and on the federal level by HUD, what other protections could we see? Keegan believes one of the next steps is to protect rental assistance vouchers as income.
“We have to think about who gets left behind as an equity issue,” Keegan said. “The amount of income that people make is not protected. Source of income might be protected in a few local places so that anybody with legal non-employment income should be really considered for housing, but those are flawed protections, as well.”