Pierce’s Traveling Circus

U.S. Housing Secretary Samuel R. Pierce Jr. has treated the issue of fair housing like a traveling circus. As Times staff writer Claire Spiegel reports, Pierce has journeyed to eight cities including Los Angeles to talk, and just talk, about housing discrimination during gatherings complete with balloons and fancy luncheons.

The talks weren’t cheap. Housing officials spent roughly $1 million, but they didn’t bill it to the taxpayers. Friends did a little arm-twisting to raise the money from developers, contractors and realtors--who can benefit from housing policies--without any public accounting of the fund-raising. That cozy arrangement smacks of a conflict of interest and hints at a revival of unsavory patronage.

Pierce should have saved the arm-twisting for realtors who want to circumvent or water down the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which prohibits discrimination in the sale or rental of housing. Although sound in principle, the law lacks the tough enforcement powers needed to make it really work so that more communities are truly integrated.

Under the law, the Justice Department can file lawsuits challenging an alleged pattern of housing discrimination. Those suits, rare because of competing civil-rights issues, plod through the courts for years. Individuals can also file suits in federal court if they have the money, the access to legal expertise and the endurance. Prospective home-buyers and tenants can also complain to the Housing and Urban Development Department, but the agency cannot impose penalties.


Congress has tried, including an attempt during the current session, to give HUD more authority to attack housing discrimination. Bills before the House and Senate would allow administrative judges to hear housing cases, impose fines and issue injunctions. The new system would add teeth and speed up the process. The change would help people who need a place to live today.

To drum up support for the legislation, Pierce should take his fair-housing road show to the White House. The Reagan Administration has expressed reservations about the stronger enforcement method. To reduce opposition, Pierce needs to twist a few arms among the members of the National Assn. of Realtors, because that organization successfully battled similar legislation in 1980.

The Fair Housing Act became law nearly 20 years ago, yet housing discrimination remains a problem. To combat that injustice, HUD Secretary Samuel Pierce should indeed twist arms, not for donations for a superficial road show but for support of a tougher and more effective law.