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UK Professor Schwemm Noted as National Expert on Fair Housing to Speak at Chicago Conference

September 5, 2018
By Lindsey Piercy

As part of this year’s celebration of the Fair Housing Act’s 50th anniversary, a Chicago law school is honoring the work of Robert G. Schwemm, Everett H. Metcalf Jr. Professor in the College of Law at the University of Kentucky. The conference on “Melding Scholarship and Advocacy Under the Fair Housing Act,” to be held at the John Marshall Law School on Sept. 6-7, will honor Schwemm by exploring current issues that demonstrate the close connection between advocacy and scholarship.

The Fair Housing Act was enacted in 1968, just one week after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. The law, which banned discrimination based on race, color, religion and national origin — and since has been amended to add sex, disability and families with children — sought to eliminate private and public practices that had, for decades, confined African Americans to segregated neighborhoods.

"The years leading up to this law were every bit as traumatic as the divisive times we’re living in now,” Schwemm said. "The law has a tragic history, but it is a fitting tribute to Dr. King. Fair housing is now at the forefront of all civil rights issues." 

Prior to becoming a professor, Schwemm practiced with Sidley and Austin in Washington, D.C., and then was chief trial counsel for the Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities in Chicago, where he helped develop many of the investigative techniques and legal precedents that are widely used today.

Schwemm joined the UK College of Law in 1975, but he continued to work on appellate cases, including two in the U.S. Supreme Court, Village of Arlington Heights v. MHDC (1977) and Gladstone Realtors v. Village of Bellwood (1979).

The now-famous Arlington Heights case was a suit against a predominately white Chicago suburb that used its zoning powers to block a racially-mixed housing development. The Supreme Court ruled against the plaintiffs' constitutional claim, but they ultimately won in the lower courts based on the Fair Housing Act. "Recently, the Supreme Court referred to exclusionary zoning suits, like Arlington Heights, as being at the ‘heartland’ of Fair Housing Act litigation," Schwemm said.

Gladstone Realtors v. Village of Bellwood was another landmark case in which two realtors were accused of directing black homebuyers to Bellwood, Illinois, while encouraging white prospects to go elsewhere. The court ruled the Village of Bellwood and homeowners residing in a racially integrated area of the Village had standing to challenge the defendants’ racial steering practices under the Fair Housing Act.

"This was a crucial precedent in a Supreme Court case last year holding that the City of Miami, Florida, could sue mortgage lenders for providing inferior loans in that city’s minority neighborhoods."

At UK, Schwemm's research has focused primarily on housing discrimination. He's published 20 articles and three books on this topic, including the major treatise in the field, "Housing Discrimination: Law and Litigation." In 2013, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) relied on his work in adopting new regulations endorsing the use of the “discriminatory effect” standard under the Fair Housing Act. Two years later, the Supreme Court again cited Schwemm in upholding this standard.

Though it was passed five decades ago, the Fair Housing Act is ever-evolving. In March, Schwemm was quoted in a New York Times article for his expertise on discriminatory housing advertisements. The Fair Housing Act has always outlawed discriminatory ads, but in the early days, suits were aimed at newspapers. Today, housing discrimination is playing out on the internet.

"Facebook, for example, knows so much about the race and other demographic information of its customers that its advertisers can target people based on this information, and thus an apartment complex or real estate development can cut out minorities from its Facebook ads," Schwemm continued. "Not only are such advertisers violating the law, but Facebook, itself, has recently been sued for this practice by both private groups and the U.S. government."

While some important work has been done with respect to non-racial issues in gender and disability cases, Schwemm believes the mission of the Fair Housing Act was always about race and still is today. "This law’s success or failure should be measured by how much it has reduced restrictions on racial minorities and undone our nation’s long-entrenched patterns of residential segregation."

At the upcoming Chicago conference, Schwemm will give the keynote address, with an important message in mind. “A key goal of the fair housing movement must be to convince people of all races and classes that they benefit from integrated housing and a non-discriminatory housing market. Our message must be, as Kentucky’s motto puts it, ‘United We Stand, Divided We Fall.’”