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MU legal expert sheds light on seminal fight for fair housing

The Fair Housing Act was considered an important victory in the battle for civil rights when passed in the 1960s, but the law hasn’t eliminated racial segregation in housing

March 13th, 2018

Story Contact: Liz McCune, 573-882-6212,

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Many Americans take for granted that they are protected from discrimination, including race and religion, when looking for an apartment or home. However, a University of Missouri legal expert said that while the act has substantively changed U.S. housing policy, it has not had the impact on American neighborhoods activists hoped for when it became law nearly 50 years ago.

“Law school students today don’t know a world without this protection, but the reality is that it is still a new law—a new law that, unfortunately, hasn’t changed America nearly as much as expected,” said MU  Law Professor Rigel Oliveri, who wrote about the legislative battle to pass the act in a new book. “Civil rights activists hoped the act would enable black families who wanted to move into white neighborhoods the ability to do so and chip away at entrenched segregation. Sadly, that’s not what has occurred.

“Many neighborhoods in cities across the United States remain segregated by color—not because of housing discrimination per se but because of systemic and socioeconomic issues that persist.”

Oliveri said attempts to further break up demographic segregation through federal legislation are unlikely in the current political climate. Instead, she said changes to state laws and shifting administrative priorities at the agency level represent the new terrain on which the fight for fair housing will continue.

The Fair Housing Act was introduced in 1966 by President Lyndon Johnson as part of an omnibus civil rights bill and was contentious from the start.

“It took multiple attempts for this act to finally pass in 1968, and many people think—and I believe this—that the act would not have passed but for the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr,” Oliveri said.

In March 1968, during Congress’s third attempt to agree on a fair housing bill, the Senate passed an agreement, but the House countered with a bill with no fair housing provisions at all. It appeared the two chambers could face a standstill on the issue once again. That standoff ended on April 4, 1968, when King was killed, infusing the debate with a renewed sense of urgency.

Seven days later—on April 11—Johnson signed the act into law, calling the signing one of the proudest moments of his presidency.

Oliveri recently wrote a chapter about the legislative battle in “The Fight for Fair Housing,” edited by Georgetown University policy expert Gregory D. Squires and published by Routledge, a leading academic publisher in the humanities and social sciences. It is one of the few books focused on the act.

Oliveri is the Isabelle Wade and Paul C. Lyda Professor of Law at the University of Missouri School of Law and is a nationally recognized expert on fair housing law. Her scholarship focuses on housing discrimination, residential segregation, zoning and property rights, and sexual harassment. A graduate of Stanford Law School, she served as a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice in the Civil Rights Division, Housing and Civil Enforcement Section before joining Mizzou.