Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you to the Joint Armed Forces Color Guard and the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps.
Thank you for joining us today for this great commemoration of a landmark civil rights law.
The Fair Housing Act protects one of the most basic and fundamental civil rights. It protects everyone who buys or rents a home from discrimination because of their race, color, religion, or national origin, and later, after amendments to the Act, because of sex, disability, or familial status.
This week’s 50th anniversary comes on the heels of another 50th anniversary we marked last week. Last Wednesday, April 4, was the 50th anniversary of the tragic and untimely assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King is one of American history’s important and iconic figures. His towering leadership changed the country for the better, and his legacy continues to uplift, unite, and inspire countless millions across the globe.
In 1966, two years before his assassination, Dr. King launched a campaign for fair housing, marching through Chicago to advocate against segregation. To highlight the substandard and deplorable living conditions African Americans faced throughout the country, Dr. King and his family moved to a tenement in a run-down Chicago neighborhood, with dirt floors and broken doors. Dr. King also took his campaign nationwide, joining President Johnson in calling on Congress to enact what would become the Fair Housing Act.
Sadly, Dr. King did not live to see his goal of nationwide fair housing legislation become a reality. But even in death, he continued to inspire action: the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which included the Fair Housing Act, passed the Senate on the day of his death but was expected to face difficulty in the House of Representatives. President Johnson called upon the House to pass the Act in honor of Dr. King. The House quickly did so, and President Johnson signed the Act into law on April 11, 1968, just one week after Dr. King’s assassination. The Fair Housing Act continues to stand as a fitting tribute to Dr. King, who gave his life for fairness and equality.
Today, we commemorate the enormous progress the country has made under the Fair Housing Act over the past five decades. The Fair Housing Act has fundamentally transformed America. It has replaced segregation with integration, despair with hope, and poverty with prosperity. It has lifted millions from the depths of intergenerational suffering. And it has advanced the promise of the American dream—that all Americans are entitled to fair and equal access to good housing, good neighborhoods, good schools, and good jobs.
Since the passage of the Fair Housing Act, the Civil Rights Division has been at the forefront of enforcing its protections and vindicating the rights of people across the country. The Division and its partners, particularly the Department of Housing and Urban Development, have led the way in eradicating the vestiges of a time when people were told where they could or could not live because of who they were, what they believed, or where they came from.
At the same time, we recognize that we still have a long way to go to achieve the Act’s universal promise and to break down the barriers that continue to discriminate against far too many people. Discrimination in housing is especially pernicious because it robs its victims of their fundamental rights and dignity—and its impact extends far beyond the four walls of the home. As President Reagan remarked upon signing the amendments to the Fair Housing Act in 1988:
“Discrimination is particularly tragic when it means a family is refused housing near good schools, a good job, or simply in a better neighborhood to raise children.”
We are honored to be joined today by our Attorney General, who has committed to continue the Department’s strong efforts to combat housing discrimination. Since January 2017, the Department has filed more than 15 cases under the Fair Housing Act, and we have settled or secured a favorable judgment in 33 civil actions, upholding fair housing rights from Washington State, to Kansas, to Mississippi.
Just last month, the United States secured a settlement with two St. Louis landlords accused of sexually harassing fifteen female tenants. Over the course of twenty years, these landlords required women to engage in sexual acts to secure housing and housing benefits, touched female tenants inappropriately, and retaliated against women who rejected their sexual advances. The settlement provides $625,000 in relief to victims and procedures to guarantee that these landlords will never be able to sexually harass anyone ever again.
In addition to providing civil relief, the Fair Housing Act also outlaws hate crimes that deny people their basic right to equal housing. Hate crimes are a form of violent crime that intimidate victims, their families, and entire communities. Combatting hate crimes is, and will remain, among the Civil Rights Division’s top priorities.
Just last month, we secured the conviction of a man for a housing-related hate crime. The man screamed at a seven-year-old African-American boy to leave the common area of his apartment complex, repeatedly using a racial slur. When the boy’s father came out of his apartment to see what was happening, the defendant drew a stun cane and tased him in the neck. As the father fell to the ground in pain, his son screamed and called out for him. The father recovered enough strength to pull his son back into their apartment while the man continued yelling racial slurs and shouting that the family should leave the apartment complex because of their race.
The United States will not stand by while criminals use violence and intimidation to deny fair housing rights. We will continue to prosecute egregious crimes like this one that deprive American families of a safe place to live.
As these cases demonstrate, discrimination in housing, sadly, is not a thing of the past. There remain many important fronts in the fight for fair housing today. One of those fronts is the fight against an invidious and violent form of discrimination: sexual harassment. Unfortunately, too many landlords, maintenance works, property managers, and others in positions of authority abuse their power over a person’s housing to prey on vulnerable tenants, most often women. These predators invade the sanctity and safety of their victims’ homes. They seek to force their victims to choose between having sex and having housing. This is completely unacceptable. Sexual harassment in housing is illegal, and the Department of Justice is firmly committed to eradicating this scourge from our communities and our country.
Since January 2017, the Department has filed or settled nine sexual harassment cases, recovering over 1.6 million dollars in relief for victims. Yet many victims are not aware that sexual harassment in housing is illegal, or that the Department of Justice can do something about it. That is why we launched the Sexual Harassment in Housing Initiative last fall. The Initiative is increasing awareness and reporting by developing partnerships in the community and magnifying public outreach across the country. Today the Attorney General will be making exciting announcements regarding our expansion of this Initiative nationwide.
The Civil Rights Division would not be successful in any of our efforts to enforce the Fair Housing Act without our outstanding partners, particularly our partners at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. We are pleased to welcome today Secretary Ben Carson and Assistant Secretary Anna Maria Farias, strong allies and partners in the work to end discrimination in housing.
We will also be welcoming Secretary Alex Acosta from the Department of Labor later today. Secretary Acosta has a long history of advancing civil rights, including fair housing.
From 2003-2005 he served as Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division and remains a proud alumnus. When we reached out to Secretary Acosta to ask him to attend today’s event, he had a scheduling conflict. But he insisted on being here anyway--so much so that he will be rushing over to join us as soon as he is able.
I’d also like to recognize Acting Associate Attorney General Jesse Panuccio, who has been a strong supporter of the Civil Rights Division and the Sexual Harassment In Housing Initiative. Unfortunately, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was called away on another matter, so Mr. Panuccio will be introducing the Attorney General later in our program.
We also have many notable guests who have joined us in the audience today. I would be here all afternoon if I mentioned each one of you, but I do want to recognize Stephen Pollak, Ralph Boyd, and Tom Wheeler – all former Assistant Attorneys General and Acting Assistant Attorneys General who have led the Civil Rights Division.
I’d also like to recognize the hard-working career professionals of the Civil Rights Division—attorneys, investigators, paralegals, and support staff, particularly those in the Housing and Civil Enforcement and Criminal Sections, who work tirelessly every day to combat discrimination in housing. Their dedication is what makes it possible for the Department to uphold the Fair Housing Act.
I now turn the stage over to HUD’s Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, the Honorable Anna Maria Farias. Thank you.