Fighting for fair housing

Homes RI
7 min readApr 25, 2024

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The ongoing battle to end housing discrimination in Rhode Island and beyond.

The Providence Journal, File Photo: Members of the Brown University chapter of the NAACP picket outside of the State House in May 1961 to support passage of the Citizens United bill for fair housing.

April is Fair Housing Month, commemorating the 1968 passage of the landmark Fair Housing Act. This transformative civil rights law makes it illegal to discriminate against a rental applicant, tenant or home seeker due to their race, color, national origin, religion, sex (including gender identity and sexual orientation), familial status and disability.

Rhode Island’s own “Fair Housing Practices” law was enacted three years prior to the Federal Fair Housing Act. Today, the state law includes additional protections, barring discrimination based on a person’s marital status, sexual orientation, status as a victim of domestic violence, age, status as a victim of domestic violence, housing status, military status and lawful source of income.

While Rhode Island may have been a few years ahead of the curve when it comes to passing fair housing legislation into law, advocates at the local and national level fought a fierce battle to bring these protections to fruition.

Rhode Island’s uphill fight for fair housing rights

In the years following World War II, Providence and Newport launched ambitious public housing projects, designed to house wartime workers. In 1942 when the homes at Newport’s Tonomy Hill development opened up to Black Navy personnel, roughly 100 white residents signed a formal petition to the mayor declaring that allowing black residents to live in the neighborhood would cause harm to their community.

This is the environment fair housing laws were born into, and out of.

James Rhea, a Black reporter working for The Providence Journal partnered with the American Civil Liberties Union in the early 1950s, to survey folks grappling with discrimination. On the topic of housing, he wrote:

“The recent experiences of two of my acquaintances show how the pattern of discrimination keeps Negroes in ‘Negro sections.’ The Negro head of a small family was seeking to buy a house. The best one available at a price he could afford was in a white neighborhood. The only thing that came between him and the purchase was his race. Occasionally white residents have signed petitions to keep Negroes from moving into a neighborhood.”

Edited footage from the WPRO (WPRI) documentary series “Close Up” likewise gave voice to Black Rhode Island residents who faced housing discrimination in an episode called “Where We Don’t Live.” This episode aired on April 11, 1965, the day before Governor John Chafee signed the Rhode Island Fair Housing Practices Act into law.

On the pro-equity side of the battle were folks like Irving Jay Fain and his group called “Citizens United for a Fair Housing Law.” Made up of business, religious, and civil rights organizations from across the state, Fain’s fair housing group focused their efforts singularly on passing a state law prohibiting housing discrimination within privately held properties in Rhode Island.

During a time when minorities faced widespread legal discriminatory practices in housing, opposition to proposed fair housing laws was equally prolific.

When Citizens United proposed a fair housing bill to the General Assembly in 1959, Providence lawyer Robert Dresser led a group of 500+ protesters at the State House, arguing that “a fair housing law would infringe on private property rights, legislate social progress, lower property values and increase racial tension in the state.”

“These complaints echo the same opinions displayed over 20 years earlier in the petition at Tonomy Hill,” noted the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society and 1696 Heritage Group in a paper on the struggle for African and Indigenous equal rights in Providence.

The political momentum in support of a fair housing law only began to shift once prominent local officials offered their support.

Finally, progress

Governor John Chafee signed the Fair Housing Practices Act on April 12, 1965 in Providence, making discriminatory housing practices illegal in Rhode Island.

“This bill gives all of our citizens equal opportunity to obtain housing, secondly and perhaps just as importantly, it shows the concern of this state that equal opportunity be a fact in Rhode Island, not just in housing but in all areas,” he said.

Civil rights activist Clifford Montiero said at the time of the signing, “we’re basically fighting to say the negro is a human being … and should be treated as a human being.”

“Some of the opponents of the bill have spread untruths about the bill,” he added. “It is not going to tell you who you may rent or sell your home to, we just want everybody to be treated as a human being.”

More than a Rhode Island story

It’s important to note that Rhode Island’s struggle for fair rights didn’t occur in a vacuum, but was instead a microcosm of the larger civil rights movement.

“It was only after 2,000 people marched from City Hall to the State House — a rally coordinated with the culmination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic 50-mile march from Selma-to-Montgomery — that Rhode Island finally passed one of the nation’s strongest housing bills on April 12, 1965.”

Montiero was among the Rhode Islanders to participate in two seminal Civil Rights marches in U.S. history: the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March.

“It was during the 54 mile march from Selma to Montgomery, in the face of violence and virulent racism, that Mr. Montiero handled communications and provided security for the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. who would deliver this “How Long, Not Long” speech outside of the Alabama State Capitol upon reaching Montgomery,” the Rhode Island Historical Society notes.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968 — President Lyndon B. Johnson called for passage of fair housing legislation as a way to honor King’s memory.

The Civil Rights Act of 1968 was signed into law a week later on April 11, 1968.

Room for improvement

Then-NAACP President Monteiro recalled: “When King died and John Chafee was governor, I went in to see him and asked for a fair-housing bill. I thought if we took down the barriers of racism in housing and voting, all the doors would open up. I honestly and truly didn’t realize how entrenched racism was.”

When the Governor signed the 1965 Fair Housing Practices Act, he acknowledged it wasn’t the end of the road, saying:

“This is no panacea, this isn’t going to solve everything. The millennium has not arrived.”

Additional protections have been added, including a 1995 comprehensive anti-discrimination law concerning sexual orientation in employment, housing, credit and public accommodations. In 2001, R.I. added gender identity or expression to each of these statutory protections. Source of income discrimination protections went into effect in 2021.

Uprise RI: In 2020, the Providence City Council Ordinance Committee hears legislation to stop source of income discrimination in housing. Rhode Island’s Fair Housing Practices Act was updated in 2021 to prohibit housing discrimination against renters based on their source of income.

While the original Fair Housing Act, “opened neighborhoods to people of color who could afford them … it did nothing to change the underlying wealth inequality that kept many people from affording those homes.”

Even after passage, the federal law also faced intense pushback, especially from suburban homeowners who opposed “forced integration.”

Housing discrimination still occurs on a grand scale in cities and towns across the country. An estimated four million acts of housing discrimination take place every year in the U.S.

From June 1, 2021 to June 30, 2022, the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights received 53 charges of housing discrimination and processed 59 charges in FY 2022.

The battle rages on.

If you believe your rights may have been violated, you are encouraged to file a report with HUD.

This post was written by Nicole Dotzenrod, Housing Network of Rhode Island communications manager.

Do you have a story you would like to uplift? Email Nicole at ndotzenrod@housingnetworkri.org to submit an idea or guest blog post.

ABOUT HOMES RI

Homes RI is a coalition of organizations working together to increase the supply of safe, healthy and affordable homes throughout Rhode Island. We believe Rhode Island can and should be a state where all residents are able to live in safe, healthy and sustainable homes in thriving communities. | homesri.org

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Homes RI

Homes RI is a coalition of organizations working together to increase the supply of safe, healthy and affordable homes throughout Rhode Island | homesri.org