New national commission investigates post-Katrina housing discrimination

A bipartisan commission held a hearing Thursday to investigate illegal housing discrimination practices following Hurricane Katrina. The day-long hearing held in Houston, entitled "The Re-Segregation on the Gulf Coast in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina," represents the second leg of the new commission's five-city investigation on the state of fair housing in America.

The National Commission on Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, co-chaired by two former Department of Housing and Urban Development secretaries, Jack Kemp and Henry Cisneros, was created by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund, Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the National Fair Housing Alliance.

At the Houston hearing, housing advocates explained how Katrina exacerbated and exposed systemic segregation and discriminatory housing practices that flourished long before the hurricane hit, according to the Houston Chronicle.

"[Hurricane Katrina] forced much of the country to learn what was happening in the Lower Ninth Ward before Katrina," John Payton, president of the NAACP's Legal Defense and Education Fund, said at the hearing. "Then we saw what happened afterward ... the demolition, displacement and dispersal of whole communities of color by Katrina."

According to the Houston Chronicle, some of the discrimination highlighted at the hearing included:

  • racially-exclusive apartment listings on housing Web sites that were supposed to aid New Orleans evacuees in finding housing after Hurricane Katrina
  • local policies, such as a rule drafted just after the storm in St. Bernard Parish, a predominantly white suburb of New Orleans that subtly segregated communities (Parish officials made it illegal for residents to rent to anyone not related to them by blood. With 93 percent of single-family homes owned by whites, it effectively stopped black evacuees from settling there.)
  • when workers with the National Fair Housing Alliance investigated apartment complexes in Texas, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Tennessee, where the greatest influx of Katrina evacuees sought refuge, they found that the majority of black would-be renters faced discrimination when compared with white counterparts -- "in 43 out of 65 test cases, black families were denied apartments or quoted higher rents than equally qualified white families, who were offered apartments or given lower rents and other discounts on the same day."

Advocates argue that federal housing authorities have been slow to correct abuses, and the lack of enforcement violates the spirit of the Fair Housing Act. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, also known as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, the landmark legislation signed into law in 1968 that prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, color, national origin, sex, disability or family status.

The commission plans a comprehensive report and presentation to Congress in December on the state of fair housing enforcement.