In honor of Black History Month, we reached out to several prominent black leaders in the housing and mortgage industry to celebrate their success, learn from their experience and gain insight into the challenges facing the mortgage industry. Today we’re excited to share this interview with Lisa Rice, President & CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance.

Lisa discusses how the legacy of discrimination resulted in disparities of wealth, homeownership and opportunity. She also shares how learning as a child of the lynching of a family member spurred her passion for civil rights and led to a career fighting housing discrimination.

Tell us a bit about the National Fair Housing Alliance. What is the history of the organization, and what sort of issues intersect with fair housing?

The National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA) was created in 1988 as the trade association for fair housing organizations throughout the nation.  As a national civil rights organization, NFHA is dedicated to eliminating all forms of housing discrimination and ensuring equitable housing opportunities for all people.

Fair housing intersects with all aspects of our society and is foundational to a strong economy, the prosperity of our nation, and the ability of people to thrive and access important opportunities.

Housing drives wealth in this country. In fact, home and land ownership are what helped build our nation. Millions of people immigrated to this country for the ability to own land and a home of their own; that’s why homeownership is the American Dream. But not everyone has had equal access to homeownership opportunities. Often, people of color and other underserved groups were purposefully denied housing and lending opportunities.

This legacy of discrimination and structural inequality is the reason we have such huge disparities in wealth and homeownership. Whites have 10 times the wealth of Blacks and 8 times the wealth of Latinos. The homeownership gap between Whites and Blacks, after diminishing somewhat after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, has ballooned in the years since the 2008 Great Recession. The Black/White homeownership gap is back to where it was when redlining was legal.

Systemic inequality and entrenched housing discrimination still drive residential segregation. Our neighborhoods are more segregated today than they were in 1920.

Because of housing discrimination and segregation, where people live also determines their outcomes in life. Location is inextricably linked to opportunity. Unfortunately, housing segregation remains the primary driver of inequality in America, where neighborhoods of color are more likely to have diminished educational opportunities; fewer healthcare facilities; more hazardous and toxic waste plants; more polluted land, air, and water; fewer grocery stores and fitness centers; and fewer bank branches.

Discrimination and segregation lie at the root of the disparities we see related to the COVID-19 pandemic in which Black Americans are dying from the disease at more than twice the rate of Whites and Asian Americans.

In addition to addressing the wide-ranging impacts of residential segregation, fair housing and fair lending laws also cover issues like credit/insurance scoring, automated underwriting, risk-based pricing, redlining, racial steering, and other forms of discrimination.

While NFHA is a resource for people who are victims of discrimination, what resources are available to help businesses maintain compliance with the law and expand housing? What are the most common mistakes people should avoid?

NFHA provides a range of resources to businesses and it collaborates with industry to expand fair and equal housing opportunities. We provide training and consulting to industry stakeholders to help them comply with the law and be proactive. For example, we conduct mystery shopping for corporations to help them understand how their business practices are impacting consumers on the ground. We also work with companies to help them update their policies, practices, procedures, products and systems to expand housing opportunities for consumers and business opportunities for industry players.

NFHA also works with industry stakeholders to advance federal and state policies that improve our markets. For example, NFHA and Quicken Loans played a leadership role in creating the Qualified Mortgage (QM) Salon, which resulted in joint comments to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) on the QM Rule.

We also partnered with industry groups on both the Disparate Impact and Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing issues.

In addition, we have partnered with industry to promote homeownership opportunities for underserved groups, and to address bias in the technologies we use in the housing and lending sectors.

More and more, industry groups understand that reducing systemic racism and other barriers is good for business. Citigroup found that eliminating these barriers would result in a $5 trillion growth in the U.S. GDP over the next 5 years.

What are some objectives you hope to achieve in 2021?

NFHA launched two major initiatives in response to the Black Lives Matter protests and the COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing economic crisis. It’s clear that, without direct action, communities of color will not recover from the COVID crisis. In fact, many never recovered from the Great Recession. Both these initiatives are developed to help ensure communities of color can bounce back stronger from the COVID pandemic.

The first effort is our Keys Unlock Dreams Initiative (KUDI), which is designed to increase homeownership rates for communities of color and millennials, while simultaneously closing the racial wealth gap. The goal is to advance research, programs, products and resources to both remove structural barriers to homeownership and to create opportunities for underserved groups to access sustainable homeownership opportunities. That includes creating a housing and lending environment that is free from discrimination.

The second effort is our Tech Equity Initiative which is designed to eliminate bias in algorithmic-based systems used in housing and financial services; increase transparency and explainability for AI tools; outline ethical standards for responsible tech; advance effective policies for regulating AI tools; and increase diversity, equity and inclusion in the tech field.

Tell us about your background growing up, and the path that lead you to the NFHA. When did you develop a passion for housing?

I first developed my passion for civil rights as a little girl. When I was five years old, I came across a note my mother wrote to my father, providing him with information about a trip she took back to her family home in Demopolis, Alabama. She wrote the note in 1963, the year I was born, and she was traveling back to Alabama to attend the funeral of her cousin who our family believed had been lynched. He died under extremely unusual circumstances and our family could never get any straight answers from law enforcement officers – the only people present when my cousin died. He had been a youth organizer for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  My inquiries about the note and my mother’s explanations piqued my interest. It birthed a life-long intrigue in me about the work my cousin was doing alongside Dr. King, and ultimately led me to sign up as an intern at the Toledo Fair Housing Center when I was 15 years old.

Who are some of the people that influenced you the most along your journey, and in what way?

I have had many mentors, including Shanna L. Smith who was the founding executive director of the Toledo Fair Housing Center. When I joined the Center as an intern, they were doing groundbreaking work investigating novel housing and lending discrimination cases. Under Shanna’s leadership, the agency conducted systemic investigations into real estate sales discrimination, rental housing discrimination, insurance redlining and appraisal discrimination. They also conducted extensive fair lending investigations using the Fair Housing Act, Equal Credit Opportunity Act and Community Reinvestment Act to tackle long-standing patterns of lending redlining and discrimination, and the horrible practice of banks abandoning communities of color.

Shanna even helped develop, investigate and litigate the nation’s first sexual harassment case – Shellhammer v. Lewallen. This case was precedent-setting because, at the time, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) did not accept that sexual harassment by landlords was a violation of the Fair Housing Act. Shanna worked with a team of lawyers to litigate this issue in federal court and the victory in this case established the legal precedent that sexual harassment was covered by the law.

I have also been influenced by leaders in my church community – Rev. James C. Williams and Mrs. Rosalyn Williams – as well as civil rights leaders, including Wade Henderson, Sherrilyn Ifill, Dorothy Height, Bill Tisdale, Kale Williams, Lee Porter, Hilary Shelton, Marc Morial and many others who have provided so much guidance to me over the years.

And, of course, I have been heavily influenced by my family, including my parents, Gloria Rice, Mattie Gayle-Rice and Julius Rice, who taught me so much through word and deed about how to always ground myself – personally and professionally – in the truth, be respectful of everyone, and always treat others the way I want to be treated. Believe it or not, those simple things have gotten me very far in life. 

What are your interests outside of work?  What brings you joy and happiness?

By all rights, I should be living my life as an artist. I majored in Fine Arts, French and Art History in undergrad, and Fine Arts with a specialization in drawing in grad school. I attended university in France. Initially, civil rights was my violin d’ingres; it was not supposed to be my primary work. But fate would have it that my “hobby” became my main life passion. Things got inverted and now art plays a secondary role. Who knows, that may change in my later years. I do still love and thoroughly enjoy all forms of art, including dance. I can cut a mean rug.

Final question:  Once the pandemic is safely in the rear-view mirror and we can get back to normal, what’s the first thing you’re looking forward to doing?

I’m really looking forward to getting back to my dance and workout classes. I miss the camaraderie, the ability to be expressive, pushing myself to go beyond my comfort level, learning new things, and moving in coordination with a group of people who share like passions.

The opinions and insights expressed in this Q&A are solely those of its interviewee, Lisa Rice, and do not necessarily represent the views of either Mortgage Guaranty Insurance Corporation or any of its parent, affiliates, or subsidiaries (collectively, “MGIC”). Neither MGIC nor any of its officers, directors, employees or agents makes any representations or warranties of any kind regarding the soundness, reliability, accuracy or completeness of any opinion, insight, recommendation, data, or other information contained in this blog, or its suitability for any intended purpose.

MGIC, featuring Lisa Rice

Lisa Rice, National Fair Housing Alliance President & CEO

Lisa Rice is the second President and CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance (NFHA), the nation’s only national civil rights agency solely dedicated to eliminating all forms of housing discrimination. NFHA is also the trade association for over 200 member organizations across the country that work to eliminate barriers in the housing markets and expand equal housing and lending opportunities. NFHA provides a range of programs to affirmatively further fair housing including community development, neighborhood stabilization, training, education, outreach, advocacy, consulting and enforcement initiatives.

Ms. Rice has helped to lead major enforcement initiatives that have resulted in expanding equal housing opportunities for millions of people. Those cases involved addressing algorithmic bias, discrimination against people who are deaf or hearing impaired, unfair lending policies impacting pregnant women, sexual harassment, lending and insurance redlining practices, steering in the real estate sales market, rental discrimination and racial disparities in the maintenance and management of Real Estate Owned properties.

She played a major role in helping to establish the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau which was established under the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act and the establishment of the Office of Fair Lending and Equal Opportunity within the CFPB.

Ms. Rice is a member of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights Board of Directors, Center for Responsible Lending Board of Directors, JPMorgan Chase Consumer Advisory Council, Mortgage Bankers Association's Consumer Advisory Council, Freddie Mac Affordable Housing Advisory Council, Urban Institute’s Mortgage Servicing Collaborative, Quicken Loans Advisory Committee. She also serves on the Bipartisan Policy Center Civil Society Advisory Council on Artificial Intelligence and FinRegLab’s Machine Learning Advisory Board.