How can we achieve equity in housing? A Q&A with the National Fair Housing Alliance's Lisa Rice

Lisa Rice is the President and CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA), the nation’s only national civil rights agency solely dedicated to eliminating all forms of housing discrimination. NFHA is also the trade association for over 200 member organizations across the country that work to eliminate barriers in the housing markets and expand equal housing and lending opportunities. NFHA provides a range of programs to affirmatively further fair housing including community development, neighborhood stabilization, training, education, outreach, advocacy, consulting and enforcement initiatives.

Rapid Growth: It's been over 50 years since the passing of the Fair Housing Act, and over 30 years since the creation of the National Fair Housing Alliance. In all that time, how far have we come as a nation?

Lisa Rice: We have certainly made progress in addressing many forms of discrimination, including housing discrimination. For example, levels of overt discrimination have diminished over the years. It is very rare to see advertisements that blatantly exclude people of color or persons with disabilities. However, subtle forms of discrimination have not dissipated as much. Moreover, many of the measures we use to determine progress indicate that in many respects we have not come very far at all. The African American homeownership rate is now, thanks to the predatory lending crisis, back down to where it was when the Fair Housing Act was passed 50 years ago. We are also seeing new forms of discrimination driven by technology that can sometimes multiply discriminatory outcomes. We are replacing human bias for algorithmic bias which can be much harder to detect.

RG: What is your personal/professional history working in fair housing?

LR: I got my start at the Toledo Fair Housing Center when I was a high school student participating in the Upward Bound program. I was awe-struck, as a young person about the powerful impact of the Fair Housing Act and how local fair housing organizations could provide direct support to victims of housing discrimination. While at the Center, I met the woman who would be my professional mentor, Shanna Smith. It is because of her support that I remained in the field of fair housing and had so many wonderful doors of opportunity opened for me.

RG: How would you describe your job as the President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Fair Housing Alliance?

LR: I am an ambassador for fair housing. It is my job to make sure that the nation understands the challenges that still remain and to garner as much support as I can for this industry. It is also my job to develop critical resources that local fair housing agencies need in order to do their jobs more efficiently and better support people who face housing discrimination.

RG: Where do you witness gaps in fair housing in our country? What are your thoughts on how to tackle them?

LR: The major gap we face is dealing with the persistent racial divide in wealth and housing. What many don’t realize is that since before our nation’s inception, ruling governments employed policies that were specifically designed to help and support a portion of society – not all of society. For 400 years, we have passed laws that elevated and enabled some to build wealth while simultaneously taking wealth and opportunities away from others. For over 400 years, our nation has used race- and gender- based policies to mete out resources to those it deemed worthy.

But we have never done anything to address the wealth divide that was created because of these policies implemented throughout the centuries. We have not addressed the inequality we created. What we have done instead is say that we are going to try to treat everyone fairly now, from this point in time.

Unfortunately, that just doesn’t cut it because it ignores that we all don’t begin at the same starting point. Systemic inequality cannot be mitigated by attempting to evenly apply rules and standards to people today. The wealth imbalance is ingrained. The racial inequality and bias is baked in. As a result, we are still grappling with a growing racial wealth and homeownership gap that are driving many other inequities in our nation. We are still grappling with systemic segregation. In fact, we are more racially segregated today than we were 100 years ago.

The Zillow group worked with us on their latest dynamic survey of 10,000 adults in the largest 20 metro areas nationwide about housing issues. The survey found that 27% of Americans have been discriminated against in their search for housing. The group experiencing the highest levels of discrimination were African Americans. Unless we honestly address legacy systems that are continuing to fuel inequality in our society, we will be here 50 years from now still asking what we can do to change things.

RG: How can an individual experiencing housing discrimination fight back?

LR: The first thing people can do is contact their local fair housing organization. Fair housing groups can conduct a customized investigation to help determine if discrimination exists. It’s easy to find a local group. Just visit the website of the National Fair Housing Alliance and click on the “Get Local Help” tab under the “Resources” button to find a nearby organization. People can also check out our website for multiple resources on fair housing issues, including educational materials designed to teach people about their rights.

RG: In particular, what is West Michigan doing right when it comes to fair housing? What can we do better?

LR: Supporting your local fair housing organization, the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan, is critically important since they are the local experts on fair housing. Communities in West Michigan can also join the Fair Housing Center in helping to implement the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing requirements for local jurisdictions. Through this process, communities can identify barriers to fair housing and develop solutions to overcoming them. Commitment to this fair housing planning process is imperative for advancing fair housing rights for everyone in your area.

Lisa Rice, President and CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA), will be the keynote speaker at the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan's 32nd Annual Luncheon & Workshop Series on April 25th from 8:15 a.m. to 1:45 p.m. at the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel. To register for the luncheon, click here.
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