July 12, 1983
To the Congress of the United States:
I am transmitting herewith the "Fair Housing Amendments Act of 1983.''
The Federal Fair Housing Act was enacted by the Congress 15 years ago. It stands as a bold promise that no person in the United States should be denied full freedom of choice in the selection of housing because of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Since its passage, however, a consensus has developed that the Fair Housing Act has delivered short of its promise because of a gap in its enforcement mechanism.
The principal means of redressing violations under the Act is resolution of complaints by the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development through informal methods of conference, conciliation, or persuasion. This informal process is the best and most effective procedure that can be devised for speedy and non-burdensome relief for individual victims of discrimination. It has worked well when it has been approached in good faith by all parties to the dispute. The Secretary achieves conciliation in roughly three-fourths of the cases in which a determination to resolve through conciliation is made, and the success rate of conciliation by State and local agencies to which complaints are referred is comparable. But as few as the cases may be where conciliation is unsuccessful, they are too many.
The gap in enforcement is the lack of a forceful back-up mechanism which provides an incentive to bring the parties to the conciliation table with serious intent to resolve the dispute then and there. When conciliation fails, the Secretary has no place else to go. In those few cases where good will is absent, the exclusive reliance upon voluntary resolution is, in the words of former Secretary Carla Hills, an ``invitation to intransigence.''
I referred to this widely acknowledged gap in the law in my recent State of the Union message when I said:
Effective enforcement of our Nation's fair housing laws is . . . essential to ensuring equal opportunity. In the year ahead, we will work to strengthen enforcement of fair housing laws for all Americans.
The central objective of the proposed legislation which I am transmitting today is to supply the missing ingredient to effective enforcement. I propose that when conciliation fails, the Secretary may refer the complaint to the Attorney General with the recommendation that an action be commenced on behalf of the United States in Federal District Court. This expands the current jurisdiction of the Justice Department, now limited to cases of discriminatory patterns or practices, to include cases involving individual victims of discrimination. It thus places the leadership in enforcement where it belongs, with the Federal Government rather than with the individual victim. And in order to emphasize the clear public interest in the prevention of discriminatory housing practices as well as to add teeth to the enforcement arsenal, it authorizes the Attorney General to seek substantial civil penalties in addition to equitable relief. While the maximum penalties are severe -- as they ought to be in cases of violation of the basic right to be free from illegal discrimination -- the tribunal with power to impose these remedies is that one which has earned and enjoyed the confidence of the American people over our history for its impartiality, independence, and fairness.
I also propose several other important improvements to the enforcement process, including:
-- Authorization for the Attorney General to seek specific performance of a conciliation agreement.
-- Confirmation that a conciliation may contain an agreement to submit to binding arbitration.
-- Authorization of temporary equitable relief through the courts while conciliation attempts are proceeding.
-- Conforming the attorneys' fee award provisions to those of the Civil Rights Attorneys Fee Award Act.
-- Extension of the statute of limitations for private actions from 180 days to two years.
-- Removal of the ceiling on punitive damages obtainable in private enforcement actions.
The proposed legislation also will extend coverage of the Fair Housing Act to prohibit discrimination on the basis of handicap. The need to extend the protection of this statute to the handicapped is a subject on which a clear consensus of the Congress emerged during the unsuccessful attempt to adopt amendments in the 96th Congress.
Reform of the Fair Housing Act is a necessity that is acknowledged by all. I urge that the Congress give these legislative proposals its immediate attention so that early enactment may be achieved.
The White House,
July 12, 1983.