Selma and other triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement have rightly captured public attention, but April marks a singular anniversary from that era that also has special significance — both nationally and in Vermont.
In April 1968, one week after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Congress passed the Fair Housing Act. The Act was a legislative landmark that became part of King’s legacy, culminating his longstanding campaign against housing discrimination. “April is Fair Housing Month” thus became an annual commemoration, and in the Burlington area this year, the occasion for a unique series of workshops, art exhibits and panel discussions.
So, what is it, exactly, that’s being commemorated?
The federal act and subsequent amendments made it illegal, among other things, to refuse to rent, sell or broker a house or apartment to people because of their race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability or family status. An example of the last category would be refusal to rent to someone because he or she has children.
Vermont went further. To the seven “protected categories” under the federal law, the Vermont Legislature added five more: age, marital status, receipt of public assistance (such as a Section 8 voucher), sexual orientation and gender identity. So in Vermont, it’s illegal to treat a housing applicant differently because that person is gay, or old, or transsexual.
In our state, where cases of housing discrimination are investigated by the Vermont Human Rights Commission or by Vermont Legal Aid, the largest share of complaints in recent years has come under the category of “disability.” The act calls for housing providers to provide “reasonable accommodations” or “reasonable modifications” for those with disabilities.
If complaints of racial or religious discrimination are relatively few in Vermont, a state that’s about 95 percent white, that’s not because bias does not exist in housing decisions here. Periodic testing has shown that African Americans, for example, or Muslims, are substantially more likely to receive disparate treatment when they try to rent an apartment. The continuing influx to Vermont of refugees — people of color, people of wide-ranging national origins and religions — should only enhance the housing industry’s awareness and sensitivity to the mandates of federal and state fair housing laws.
Lofty public policies don’t always jibe with reality, however. Forty-seven years after the federal enactment, many of this country’s major metropolitan areas remain highly segregated by race. This flies in the face of the ideal that Americans should have a choice in where to live and not be confined to, or steered toward, under-served or substandard neighborhoods.
In Vermont — where housing costs are high, wages are low, and affordable housing is in desperately short supply — the reality is that lower-income people often face limited housing options with unbearable expense. Nearly one-fourth of Vermont’s renters pay half their income on rent and utilities, and many live in car-dependent places where they have to shell out more money just to get to work or the grocery store.
This is not the reality envisioned by Dr. King or the framers of the Fair Housing Act. In fact, the Fair Housing Act is not just about banning discrimination. It’s also about promoting integration. The key idea is that entire communities benefit when all kinds of people have an opportunity to live in fairly close proximity to public services and to each other, and that disadvantaged people who live in an inclusive community enjoy improved prospects for health, education and work.
Vermont’s character would seem to favor an ideal of socioeconomic inclusiveness. This is a state, after all, which values a town-meeting tradition that draws everybody into communal decision-making, a state that looks askance at gated communities. And in fact, the Vermont Legislature took a stand for that ideal in 2012, when it added “income” to the state’s protected classes for real-estate development. Now it is unlawful for anyone “to discriminate in land use decisions or in the permitting of housing” because of income.
Over the past several years, Burlington engaged in an extensive dialogue about socioeconomic diversity in its public school enrollment. Burlington and other towns across the state might well benefit from similar conversations about socioeconomic diversity in residential housing patterns.
That’s the kind of conversation that the April series of events in Burlington is designed to encourage. The series is titled “HeART & Home: Celebrating Inclusive Neighborhoods for Fair Housing Month,” and features an array of art exhibits, workshops and panel discussions.
This is a prime example of art and creative expression serving the cause of social justice.