Fighting Housing Discrimination By Executive Order

President John F. Kennedy.
President John F. Kennedy.

In 1962, President John F. Kennedy recognized the need to expand the role of the federal government in protecting the rights of Americans to access housing. Citing the Housing Act of 1949, the last major federal law related to housing, Kennedy issued Executive Order 11063 for “the realization as soon as feasible of the goal of a decent home and a suitable living environment for every American family.” In it, he ordered every federal department to take action to protect Americans of all races, religions, and nations of birth from discrimination.

The executive order was framed with a finely written preamble that stated, among other things, that “discriminatory policies and practices based upon race, color, creed, or national origin now operate to deny many Americans the benefits of housing financed through Federal assistance and as a consequence prevent such assistance from providing them with an alternative to substandard, unsafe, unsanitary, and overcrowded housing.”

The order consisted of four substantive parts:

  1. Prevention of discrimination both in the sale and the lending of residential property and land;
  2. Implementation by federal departments and agencies, including submitting plans to the President within 30 days;
  3. Enforcement, including termination of federal contracts, withholding of future federal aid, withholding of approval of lending institutions, and civil or criminal prosecution; and
  4. Creation of the President’s Committee on Equal Opportunity in Housing, with members from the President’s cabinet, White House staff, and members of the public.

The executive order became effective immediately upon Kennedy’s signing, on November 20, 1962. A press release accompanied the order, in which the president declared, “Our national policy is equal opportunity for all and the Federal Government will continue to take such legal and proper steps as it may to achieve the realization of that goal.”

At the press conference that day, Kennedy handled questions about why he took so long to sign the order and his assessment of the possible economic impact. He replied:

Well, I said that I would issue it at the time when I thought it was in the public interest, and now is the time. …I don’t think that its immediate effect—there may be some adverse reaction—but I think that we will be able to proceed in the development of our housing industry, which is important to our economy. I know one builder the other day in part of New York said that he would be very much against the housing order because it would hurt his development, and he was reminded that there was a more stringent law in effect in New York at the time, so that I think that some of the fears have been exaggerated. In any case, it’s sound public, constitutional policy and we’ve done it.

On the following day, the federal Housing and Home Finance Agency released a prepared Q-&-A specific to the executive order. The questions effectively summarized the goals and details of the order (taken verbatim):

  • By what means does the Order seek to achieve this purpose [freedom of choice in housing for all Americans]?
  • What forms of housing assistance are covered by the Order?
  • Does the Order apply to existing housing as well as housing yet to be provided?
  • Are builders or developers of housing subject to the Order?
  • If a person buys a dwelling that is subject to the Order, at the time of purchase, will he be prohibited thereafter from discriminating in its resale or rental?
  • Does the Order apply to the rental of a unit in a two-family residence where the owner occupies the other unit?
  • Is housing in urban renewal areas covered?
  • How will home financing institutions be affected by the Order?
  • What will be the impact of the Executive Order on the housing market and the national economy?

To get the answers to those questions, take a look at the document for yourself! You can also view the executive order here, President Kennedy’s press statement here, and the HHFA’s detailed analysis here.

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