Does the federal Fair Housing Act (“FHA”) ban harassing statements to a minority family who has just moved into a predominantly white neighborhood? The FHA does contain an antiharassment provision (42 U.S.C. § 3617), and this certainly applies to firebombings and other types of physical assault designed to drive the family out of the area. But does § 3617 also outlaw purely verbal attacks? And if so, how egregious must the remarks be before a federal case should be made out of them? For example, would substituting "Niggers" for "people like you" in the above quote make a difference?
Today, more than forty years after the FHA's enactment in 1968, housing harassment remains pervasive. Harassment and retaliation claims continue to account for a significant portion of all FHA claims. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (“HUD”), the agency primarily responsible for administering the FHA, well over a thousand § 3617 complaints were filed with HUD and state and local fair housing agencies in each of the past four years. A similar number of harassment claims are made each year to private fair housing groups. In one particularly egregious example of neighbor-on-neighbor harassment, a Latino family in 2009 was awarded over $500,000 in damages against one of its white neighbors, although the legal basis for this case was state law, not the FHA.
This Article analyzes the issue of whether § 3617 should be interpreted to outlaw invidiously motivated disputes among neighbors. Part II begins by examining § 3617's text and its relationship to the overall FHA. It then reviews § 3617 decisions in neighbor harassment cases, including Halprin v. Prairie Single Family Homes of Dearborn Park Ass'n and Bloch v. Frischholz. This analysis shows that the scope of § 3617 is governed by the meaning of “interfere with” and the relationship of § 3617 to the prohibitions it references in §§ 3603-3606. These issues are further analyzed in Part III, which examines § 3617's legislative history and purpose, its interpretation by HUD and courts in other types of § 3617 cases, Supreme Court decisions in analogous Title VII cases, and the issue of whether interpreting § 3617 to outlaw a neighbor's verbal abuse would pose First Amendment problems. The Article concludes that applying § 3617 to neighbors' quarrels (i.e., making a federal case out of them) is appropriate in a much broader range of cases than Halprin, Bloch, and many other decisions have allowed.
Robert G. Schwemm, Neighbor-on-Neighbor Harassment: Does the Fair Housing Act Make a Federal Case Out of It?, 61 Case W. Res. L. Rev. 865 (2011).