The landlord said she was “a stupid brown woman” who was exaggerating the need for repairs at her apartment, according to a discrimination complaint the Allison Park resident filed.
“You Indians are all the same,” the man said. “Do I hate Indians? No, I hate dealing with them.”
The still-pending complaint, filed earlier this year with the federal government, was made possible by the Fair Housing Act, a landmark law that celebrates its 50th anniversary this week. The legislation was the result of bitter battles following decades when housing discrimination was government policy.
The bill — a measure civil rights advocates had long sought — finally passed in the aftermath of Martin Luther King Jr.’s murder and the subsequent violent protests that shook numerous American cities in the days after April 4, 1968.
“This tragedy has caused all good men to look deeply into their hearts. When the Nation so urgently needs the healing balm of unity, a brutal wound on our conscience forces upon us all this question: What more can I do to achieve brotherhood and equality among all Americans?” President Lyndon Johnson wrote in an April 5 letter to the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
“There are many actions the Congress can take, on its part. The most immediate is to enact legislation so long delayed and so close to fulfillment. We should pass the Fair Housing law when the Congress convenes next week,” he urged.
The law, which had been stalled in Congress for years, passed and was signed into law in a matter of days. Technically called the Civil Rights Act of 1968, it banned discrimination in the sale, rental or financing of housing based on race and several other factors.
“LBJ to Sign Open Housing Measure Soon,” read one headline in the April 11, 1968 edition of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, one column away from “Curfew Lifted As City Riots Come to End.”
Pittsburgh, like many other cities, had deeply segregated neighborhoods that confined black residents to the worst-quality housing.
A 1962 study of “urban renewal” programs in Pittsburgh and Allegheny County pointed out the existing segregation in the city and county, as well as noting that black families mostly lived in areas with older, dilapidated housing.
“An urban renewal program for Allegheny County must face up to the special problems of its 37,973 non-white families, which as a group, are heavily concentrated in areas at present or potentially scheduled for clearance and redevelopment,” the report stated.
“The non-white population in the County, of which more than 98% is Negro, is disadvantaged both economically, and specifically in its housing. These two conditions are interrelated,” the report noted.
Black Pittsburghers, the report noted, “have been largely left behind in the advancing prosperity of the post World War II period.”
Prior to the Fair Housing Act, housing segregation in Northern cities was maintained in a number of ways, such as segregated public housing, restrictive zoning laws and restrictions written into deeds that prohibited blacks from owning or occupying certain properties, said Gerald Dickinson, an assistant professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh Law School.
“Redlining” by banks and lenders also kept black residents mostly confined to certain neighborhoods — making it almost impossible for them to get a mortgage, purchase a home, and build wealth in the same way white families could.
“[The] real estate industry and the lending industry actually played a significant role in perpetuating segregation by not providing loans to African-American families,” said Mr. Dickinson.
By the 1950s, urban renewal programs, such as the demolition of part of Pittsburgh’s Hill District, had also begun to displace some black residents, which put further strain on already overcrowded housing in black neighborhoods.
Pittsburgh had passed its own local fair housing bill in 1959, though it had limited impact prior to the federal law, said Morton “Moe” Coleman, director emeritus of the Institute of Politics at the University of Pittsburgh and professor emeritus at Pitt’s School of Social Work.
“The real estate system was antagonistic to the idea,” of fair housing, recalled Mr. Coleman, who worked for Pittsburgh Mayor Joseph Barr, implementing a number of the era’s federal anti-poverty initiatives.
“There was a huge amount of pushback,” he said.
Mr. Coleman testified in favor of the fair housing law in a 1963 case that tested the legislation before Allegheny County Common Pleas Court. The case came about when Dr. Oswald Nickens, an obstetrician who was African-American, wanted to buy a home in Stanton Heights. The Stanton Land Company refused to sell him the land on which to build a home, explicitly citing his race as the reason. The court sided with Dr. Nickens and said the fair housing law should be upheld.
Today, complaints like those of the Allison Park woman who said she was subject to racist statements from her landlord, are investigated and, in some cases, landlords can face fines.
While not dismissing the gains in fair housing made since 1968, those who enforce the law today say there is still much progress to be made.
“If I look at 1968 and I look at today, there’s a lot that’s been successful,” said Jay Dworin, executive director of the Fair Housing Partnership, a private nonprofit that contracts with the federal government to enforce the act.
“Most people know that they can’t overtly say, ‘Hey, you’re black, get out of my neighborhood.’ But what we do have is an abundance of discrimination with a smile and a handshake…‘Oh, I’m sorry, I just rented it.’… The effect is the same.”
“Has [the law] ended discrimination? It has not,” said Carlos Torres, executive director of the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations.
The majority of fair housing complaints in Pittsburgh today concern discrimination based on disability, said Mr. Torres, head of the agency that investigates complaints of alleged discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodations within the City of Pittsburgh.
Another common housing complaint is based on family status, such as a landlord not allowing a family to rent a unit because they have children.
“That’s against the law,” Mr. Torres said.
Mr. Torres said the commission’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Task Force will be seeking community feedback on 16 draft proposals and aim to present final recommendations to the mayor and city council next year.
Some of the recommendations include: passage of inclusionary zoning, a legal defense fund for low-income Pittsburghers facing eviction, non-discriminatory tenant screening practices, maximizing the use of the Section 8 homeownership program, and fair housing training for landlords and tenants.
“These [recommendations] could address long time gaps in terms of the city’s obligation to affirmatively further fair housing,” said Helen Gerhardt, who chairs the task force.
Enforcement of the Fair Housing Act has been its weakness, said Mr. Dickinson.
“A lot of this is piecemeal, over the years, in terms of changing the trajectory of discrimination and segregation in the country. There has been progress with regards to integration and desegregation. We still have aways to go,” he said.
Some fair housing advocates are disheartened by what they see as less of a commitment from federal officials to further fair housing. Several point to cases that HUD has pulled back from under the current administration, such as a high-profile case in Houston.
The law is the “single most effective tool that we have in combating racial and other invidious housing discrimination and segregation in our communities, around the nation,” said Kevin Quisenberry, a Pittsburgh attorney who has handled fair housing cases. However, it is only as effective as the efforts of those who work to enforce it, said Mr. Quisenberry, who works at the Community Justice Project, part of the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network.
“It is difficult and frustrating as a fair housing advocate to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of what is landmark legislation, while fearing that people are attacking that same legislation today,” Mr. Dworin said.
The city of Pittsburgh also remains segregated in many respects.
A 2015 study by Pittsburgh Community Reinvestment Group noted in 2013, half of all residential mortgage loan dollars in the City of Pittsburgh went to just seven neighborhoods: Squirrel Hill South, Squirrel Hill North, Shadyside, Point Breeze, South Side Flats, Highland Park, and Brookline.
“Concentrations of poverty, people of color, and vacancy persist in historically redlined areas,” two University of Pittsburgh researchers found in a 2016 paper that examined how 1937 government-drawn maps that restricted black Americans from mortgages compared to current geography.
The examination noted in 1937, most of the city’s black population lived in one of three neighborhoods: the Hill District, East Liberty, and Homewood.
“Despite the city’s current rhetoric of renewal, Pittsburgh is still constructed around a geography very similar to its past: Poor and black communities are concentrated in areas that suffered from divestment, whereas the affluent class and homeowners live in areas supported by a historic advantage,” wrote researchers Devin Q. Rutan and Michael R. Glass.
Housing activist Carl Redwood, speaking at a city planning meeting last month about plans for the site of the former Penn Plaza apartments in East Liberty, said black residents are still being displaced from their homes — a decades-long problem.
“We’re just giving them this promise, that ‘At the end of the day, we hope that they all can come back,’” he said of the former Penn Plaza residents.
“Well, that end of the day didn’t come for the people in the Hill, it didn’t come for the people in St. Clair, in didn’t come for the people in Arlington, it didn’t come for the people in the high rises in East Liberty, it just never comes, that day never comes,” he said, referring to now-shuttered subsidized housing.
“Where you live will determine more about your life than anything else,” noted Mr. Dworin, such as what school you go to, the level of crime and violence you are subject to and job opportunities.
“Where you live is going to make that determination,” he said. “And if the color of your skin is going to be the barrier to that, then we are not as far from ‘68 as we thought we were.”
Kate Giammarise: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3909.