Tim Kaine: How to make housing fair in America

Posted at 10:39 AM, Aug 12, 2016
and last updated 2016-08-12 10:39:28-04

Editor’s note: Tim Kaine is a United States senator from Virginia and the Democratic candidate for vice president. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

I was a brand-new lawyer at a small firm in Richmond, Virginia. And fresh out of law school, as the rookie on the team, the pro-bono cases came to me. That’s how I met Lorraine.

She was a young African-American woman. As she sat across the table, she told me how she had just graduated college, found a job, and was trying to move out of her parents’ home and start a life of her own.

Lorraine saw an apartment advertised in the newspaper, called the number and arranged to meet the landlord. But as soon as he saw her in person, he said, “Sorry, we just rented the place.”

Something didn’t feel right. So Lorraine asked one of her white colleagues to call and inquire about the apartment. And lo and behold — it was still on the market.

Long after the Civil Rights Act was passed, and our country declared that we are all created equal, I was looking at an open-and-shut case of racial discrimination. I won the case, and housing discrimination would go on to become the heart of my legal practice for many years.

But I could never shake the impact Lorraine’s case had on me. She and I were about the same age. We were both starting the first chapter of our lives in the real world. And yet, simply because of our different skin color, we had radically different experiences finding a place to begin those lives.

A house is more than just a place to sleep. It’s part of the foundation on which a family can build a life. Where you live determines the jobs you can find, the schools your children can attend, the air you breathe and the opportunities you have. And when you are blocked from living where you want, it cuts to the core of who you are.

Stories like Lorraine’s remind us why it’s so important for those of us who haven’t faced barriers like these to acknowledge our privilege — and why those of us in public service must go even further. We have an obligation to correct these injustices wherever they occur.

Progress has been slow because there have always been people willing to discriminate for profit. In fact, before I started my career fighting this problem, and while my running mate, Hillary Clinton, was going undercover to expose school segregation in Alabama — our opponent, Donald Trump, was occupying himself in other ways.

Around this same time, if a woman like Lorraine attempted to rent an apartment from Trump’s company, federal investigators were told that employees would have added a piece of paper to her rental application with the letter “C” on it. As the Department of Justice would later discover, “C” stood for “Colored.”

The US government brought a housing discrimination suit, and it found that this racist and discriminatory practice took place across 39 Trump properties.

This is one issue that shows the essential role government can play in creating a fairer society. Sen. Ed Brooke, an African-American Republican from Massachusetts, and Sen. Walter Mondale, a white Democrat from Minnesota, came together to draft the Fair Housing Act, which protects people from discrimination in the housing market.

This act passed just one week after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and it was the very law that Trump and his company were sued under. It proved we can ensure that opportunity never depends on a family’s race or religion.

Today, more action is still needed. That’s why Hillary Clinton and I have a bold, progressive plan to fight housing inequities across America — especially in communities that have been left out or left behind.

While the drivers of this problem have varied over time, from overt redlining to uneven access to the mortgage market and skyrocketing rents, the basic problem remains: it’s too hard for families of color to find a decent, affordable place to live — a place with good jobs and quality schools.

Hillary and I will not stand for this. Our plan will invest tens of billions of dollars to attack the problem from several different angles.

We’ll expand the supply of Low Income Housing Tax Credits that help keep rising rents in check.

We’ll increase rental assistance for low-income families, and help families who receive support choose from a wide range of neighborhoods to live in.

We’ll provide more resources to public housing authorities, and pair these investments with broader economic development efforts.

We’ll support initiatives to provide up to $10,000 in assistance on a down payment for families looking to buy their first home.

And of course, we’ll bolster resources to enforce Fair Housing laws and fight housing discrimination in all its forms.

It’s been decades since Lorraine found herself blocked from the opportunity she deserved, and yet, far too many people of color still face similar barriers. But when Hillary Clinton and I are in the White House, we’ll do everything we can to make sure that everyone has an equal shot at finding a good place to call home.

Tim Kaine is a United States senator from Virginia and the Democratic candidate for vice president. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.