Congress Extends Housing Protections to Families with Children
On September 13, 1988, President Reagan signed into law the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988, thereby extending federal protections against housing discrimination to cover families with children. NCYL played a key role in the inclusion of families with children as a protected class. Sponsored by Representative Hamilton Fish, Jr. of New York, the law passed Congress with wide bipartisan support and took effect on March 12, 1989.
The Fair Housing Act, part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, originally banned discrimination in housing on the basis of race, color, national origin, and religion. In passing the law, Congress declared, “It is the policy of the United States to provide, within constitutional limitations, for fair housing throughout the United States.” In 1974, Congress amended the Fair Housing Act to ban discrimination on the basis of sex.
Twenty years after its passage, the Fair Housing Act’s promise remained unfulfilled, particularly with regard to families with children. By the 1980s, housing discrimination against families with children was a growing problem throughout the country. A widely cited 1980 survey by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”) showed that 25% of rental units excluded children outright. An additional 50% of rental units had restrictions on the age, number, or sex of children in tenants’ families. The survey found that half of all rental units were unavailable to a family with two children.
When Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968, discrimination against families in housing had barely registered in the national consciousness; just a few decades later, it was rampant. NCYL became a leading expert on fair housing for families with children and began meeting with members of Congress and their staff. NCYL also advocated behind the scenes with civil rights groups who were ready to scrap familial status protections in draft housing legislation because they saw it as overcomplicating the bill.
In 1987, NCYL attorney Jim Morales testified before the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. The testimony explained the demographic and economic trends underpinning the housing crisis for families with children, as well as the human cost of housing discrimination. The testimony described, for instance, one family with four children who remained homeless for several months because none of the 50 prospective landlords the family met with was willing to rent to them. The testimony also highlighted the racial implications of family status discrimination. Congress later cited NCYL’s testimony when it voiced concern with the “racially discriminatory effect” of housing discrimination targeted to families with young children. NCYL urged Congress to “take strong action to ensure that families with children have equal access to basic necessities such as housing.”
Congress responded with the passage of the Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1988 (“FHAA”). The FHAA amended the Fair Housing Act to include protections against discrimination on the basis of disability and “familial status.” The law made it illegal nationwide for a property owner to refuse to rent or sell, or to otherwise make housing unavailable, to households with children younger than eighteen, to pregnant women, and to those “in the process of securing legal custody of [a minor child.]” It would now be unlawful to misrepresent the availability of a dwelling to families with children or to make or publish discriminatory statements about families with children in regard to a housing sale or rental. The “adults only” signs at rental properties that had become so commonplace, as well as the practice of segregating families with children into a particular area of a housing complex, would now be banned. (The law carved out an exception for senior citizen housing.) The FHAA also allowed for families who believed they were discriminated against to file their own lawsuits to enforce the law’s provisions, and to seek both monetary damages and injunctive relief.
The public response was swift. By March 1989, about 12,800 complaints of discrimination based on family status had been filed. In the first two years after the FHAA’s enactment, half of all HUD complaints were based on family discrimination. And by early 1994, five years after the law went into effect, family status cases accounted for two-thirds of all the discrimination cases that HUD substantiated.
After the FHAA’s passage, NCYL provided trainings to lawyers nationwide about how to use the new law to protect the housing rights of families with children. The courts also began ruling on familial status claims. In one of the first familial status cases out of the federal appellate courts, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals revived the lawsuit of a couple whose landlord attempted to evict them when they were in the process of becoming foster parents. A review of the case law six years after the FHAA was enacted showed that the application of the law in courts was “remarkably settled,” as fair housing advocates were successfully using the law to vindicate families’ rights in court.