Well, please be seated, and welcome to the White House. You know, today is a day I've been waiting for, for 8 years. About this time 8 years ago, I noted that homeownership is "among the foremost values of the American people" and that this value was seriously in danger. The danger I was addressing then was economic. According to real estate industry economists, the average family at that time was making only 75 percent of what it needed to buy a home. And as Secretary [of Housing and Urban Development] Pierce's predecessor said, "For many hard-working families, housing is growing beyond their reach." Well, today interest rates are down. Real incomes are up. And the average family is making approximately 110 percent of what it needs to buy a home. And once again, the American family can afford the American home.
When it comes to housing for low- and medium-income families who rent, national vacancy rates today average just under 8 percent, up from 5 percent when we took office, with even more progress for low income units. This reflects that today we have an abundant supply of affordable rental housing for all Americans.
Today we address, at last, the other important obstacle to homeownership and rental: discrimination. Discrimination is particularly tragic when it means a family is refused housing near good schools, a good job, or simply in a better neighborhood to raise children. This bill is the product of years of bipartisan work and repairs a significant deficit—or defect, I should say—deficit is on my mind too—in civil rights law.
The Civil Rights Act of 1968 included, for the first time in our history, a fair housing provision. That was a major achievement, one that many Members of Congress, including a young Congressman named George Bush, had to show enormous courage to vote for. Unfortunately the fair housing title didn't work as well as had been hoped. It lacked teeth. Its conciliation provisions were ineffective, when used. And that's why our administration, and Secretary Sam Pierce, in particular, has devoted 8 years to redress the absence of penalties and the inability of the Government to initiate actions except when a pattern of discrimination could be proven. These were shortcomings that made the statute difficult to enforce. In my State of the Union Address 5 years ago, I joined with Members of Congress on both sides of the aisle in vowing that "We will work to strengthen enforcement of fair housing laws for all Americans," and now we've achieved that goal.
The bill I sign today has a number of significant features. First, the law extends protection to families with children and persons with handicaps and continues to recognize and protect the special needs of the elderly. Second, for the first time, aggrieved parties may avail themselves of an administrative enforcement procedure. Moreover, the administrative law judge may assess penalties against those who discriminate. The penalties are a $10,000 fine for the first violation, $25,000 for the second, and $50,000 for the third. Third, for the first time, in cases initiated by the Department of Justice, the Department may obtain monetary relief for victims and civil penalties of $50,000 for a first violation and $100,000 for subsequent violations. Fourth, the constitutional rights of all parties are protected. Both defendant and plaintiff have the option of a jury trial, or they can agree to the faster, simpler administrative procedure.
At the same time, I want to emphasize that this bill does not represent any congressional or executive branch endorsement of the notion, expressed in some judicial opinions, that title 8 violations may be established by a showing of disparate impact or discriminatory effects of a practice that is taken without discriminatory intent. Title 8 speaks only to intentional discrimination.
There are so many people who deserve credit today—Secretary Pierce, of course, as well as the leadership of the Justice Department. When I signed the 1987 Housing Act, I called Sam the unsung hero of the administration. Well, it's time we all recognize Sam as the unsung hero of this, the most important civil rights legislation in 20 years.
And then there's Representative Hamilton Fish, who has worked for decades to strengthen our fair housing laws. Ham Fish was the architect of the key provisions in the bill that protect the constitutional right of Americans to civil jury trials.
Every Senator and Representative standing up here with me today played an important role in the passage of this landmark civil rights bill, and I want to mention especially Representative John Lewis. Twenty-five years ago, as a young leader of the civil rights movement, Congressman Lewis was standing in this very Rose Garden pressing for Federal action to eliminate housing discrimination. John's hard work to achieve that has brought us one step closer to realizing Martin Luther King's dream. To all of you and to everyone involved in the passage of this legislation, the Nation says thank you.
And now I have a little signing to do.