Wednesday is the 50th anniversary of the passage of the federal Fair Housing Act. This landmark law has deep Minnesota roots and reflects a time when this state was a national leader on civil rights. But that leadership has eroded. Today, many of Minnesota’s leaders treat the Fair Housing Act less as an inspiration and more like an obstacle.
There was a time when Minnesota was staunchly committed to civil rights in housing. In 1961, the Legislature added provisions to its Human Rights Act barring discrimination in housing or lending based on race or color — one of the first states to do so.
By the end of the 1960s, the debate over fair housing had evolved. There was a growing political awareness that much of America’s racial inequality could be traced to the intentional creation of highly segregated, deeply impoverished ghettos. This problem, long feared, had become impossible to ignore after a series of nationwide inner-city riots. A presidential commission formed to investigate the riots’ origins — including Roy Wilkins, Minnesotan and head of the NAACP — found that segregation itself was to blame. “White institutions created [the ghetto], white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it,” the report concluded.
Propelled in part by these findings, the fight for fair housing moved into Congress. On the floor of the U.S. Senate, it was Minnesota’s Walter Mondale who led the push for a fair housing law. Mondale helped guide the legislation past the unyielding resistance of Southern segregationists and the wavering conviction of Senate moderates.
Even then, the law might have failed, or might have been adopted in greatly weakened form, if not for the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But King’s death galvanized Congress, and in a headlong rush, the Fair Housing Act was passed and signed into law, 50 years ago on April 11.
Famously, Mondale described the creation of “truly integrated and balanced living patterns” as the Fair Housing Act’s goal. Back home in Minnesota, this idea was being embraced. The state created the Metropolitan Council and, with a series of pathbreaking statutes, granted it the power to ensure that every jurisdiction in the Twin Cities region produced its fair share of affordable housing.
This “fair share” model of housing served a dual purpose. First, it promoted widespread mobility and affordability, benefiting all the region’s residents. Second, and just as important, it prevented the concentration of subsidized housing, ultimately slowing the formation of intense segregation. Those two features helped insulate individuals and cities from segregation’s many burdens.
For much of the nation, implementing the Fair Housing Act proved a struggle. But Minnesota pursued its ideas with enthusiasm — and thrived. In the Twin Cities, huge shares of affordable housing were produced in the suburbs, creating stability and prosperity.
Then the tables began to turn. Minnesota started to fall behind. Although the fair share system remained in state law, the Met Council began reducing its enforcement of those requirements, and, predictably, cities began ignoring their legal obligations.
A combination of political forces contributed to this shift. Some of these were predictable, such as resistance from affluent white suburbs. But others were not. In the central cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, subsidized housing developers and other nominally progressive groups began to argue that neighborhood segregation was inevitable and best addressed through a “separate but equal” strategy that directed funding streams to those neighborhoods (and, of course, to the groups themselves).
With little new affordable housing being produced in affluent areas, deep pockets of poverty and segregation began to form in the Twin Cities’ working-class suburbs. Meanwhile, the poorest inner-city neighborhoods grew poorer still.
Inevitably, the region’s schools began to segregate as well, causing chaos as school districts’ limited resources confronted overwhelming need. The state responded by implementing a series of disruptive interventions — such as charter schools and aggressive open enrollment — that had the effect of destabilizing Minnesota’s nationally renowned education system.
These days, instead of running ahead of the Fair Housing Act, Minnesota is running up against it. In 2015, Minneapolis, St. Paul, the Met Council and the state government all found themselves subject to federal fair-housing complaints. Several suburbs and community groups argued that the state, council and cities had intentionally contributed to racial segregation.
There are few signs of progress anymore. Although Minneapolis’ new mayor has spoken passionately about the need for fair and integrated housing, other leaders have shown limited appetite for the kind of coordinated regional planning it would take to bring his vision to fruition. More often, efforts to address racial inequality devolve into a barrage of consultant-fueled buzzwords. Racial isolation in the Twin Cities badly outstrips what is seen in demographically similar cities like Portland or Seattle.
It is time for Minnesota to remember its history. This is not the first time the state has confronted the staggering challenge of segregation. Fifty years ago, Minnesotans’ resolve on civil rights helped introduce the Fair Housing Act to a nation that needed it badly. That same resolve is now needed at home.
Myron Orfield is the Earl R. Larson Professor of Civil Rights at the University of Minnesota Law School and director of the school’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity. Will Stancil is a research fellow at the institute.