In the early 1960s, the City of St. Louis passed its first civil rights legislation in an ordinance that guaranteed equal rights in all public places for minorities. This was a big step forward in the City’s history.
In 1968, shortly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, a Federal Fair Housing Act was passed that prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion and national origin. Discrimination based on gender was added in 1974. When the law was comprehensively amended in 1988, it was changed to include discrimination against people because of disability and because of familial status, i.e., the presence of children under the age of 18.
The US Department of Housing & Urban Development requires that communities it funds have local laws that are “substantially equivalent” to the federal Fair Housing Act.
In 1992, then-mayor Vince Schoemehl signed a civil rights ordinance intended to make the City ordinance match the federal law; and in 2003, I signed another ordinance intended to do the same thing. HUD, however, never certified either ordinance as meeting the necessary tests.
That will change this coming week.
For the past two years the City — my office, the City Counselor’s office, and Ruby Bonner’s Civil Rights Enforcement Agency has worked closely with HUD to craft an ordinance that the federal government has certified as “substantially equivalent.”
Alderman Fred Wessels, Chair of the City’s Housing, Urban Development and Zoning Committee, will introduce the ordinance next Friday, April 28.
In anticipation of the ordinance’s passage, HUD and the City have structured an agreement in which HUD and the City will cooperate on the investigation and resolution of Fair Housing complaints and HUD will provide funding for such investigations.
I expect the Board of Estimate & Apportionment to consider — and approve — the agreement tomorrow. And on Thursday, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity Division has planned a cermony. Kim Kendrick, Assistant HUD Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity will be in town from Washington, DC, to sign the agreement.
Once the ordinance is passed, the agreement will become effective and CREA will begin working with HUD as complaints are referred.
Today’s cultural environment is far different from the situation in the 1960s when the City’s original anti-discrimination was enacted. Discrimination is far less prevalent now than then, but it remains a fact of life in some cases. When discrimination occurs, the City wants to deal with it promptly and effectively — and the new HUD agreement will enhance the City’s ability to do so.
The new St. Louis legislation, like the City ordinances passed in 1992 and 2003 and like the federal Fair Housing Act, prohibits a variety of types of discrimination, including race, color, age, religion, disability, national origin or ancestry, in a variety of situations. The City’s legislation, however, differs from the Fair Housing Act in one very important respect: City law also prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Since the Fair Housing Act does not prohibit such discrimination, the new agreement will not apply to discrimination complaints involving sexual orientation. The City will continue to receive and investigate such complaints on its own.
In an interview in 1983, the legendary South St. Louis alderman Albert “Red” Villa talked to newspaper columnist Greg Freeman about Villa’s role in pushing the Tucker Administration’s equal accommodations legislation through the Board of Aldermen. Freeman later recalled the conversation:
"’You’ve got to remember, I’ve got a white saloon,’’ Red said, in an interview five years ago. ’’So that wasn’t too popular. We took some abuse; we took some heat. But it blew over. How can you in good conscience not be for public accommodations? It’s like the guy who had the presidency a few years ago that heat-and-kitchen thing.’"