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When the Real Estate Industry Led the Fight to Defend Segregation

In 1964, nine months after Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a real estate broker and former newspaperman from Fresno, California, delivered a different kind of address. His crusade was part of a “great war” against fair housing laws.

As part of a wide-ranging public relations and political campaign, Lawrence “Spike” Wilson, president of the powerful California Real Estate Association (CREA), gave speeches, devised talking points and created messaging aimed squarely against the Rumford Act, a pioneering fair housing law passed in 1963 that sought to combat the discrimination Black residents faced from landlords and real estate agents. CREA helped lead the statewide fight against the law and in support of Proposition 14, an amendment to repeal the Rumford Act and make it illegal to pass any future such legislation, as well as a national campaign to reposition real estate agents as fighters for free enterprise.

Invoking the right to certain freedoms — of association, choice, and vitally, private property rights — as well as references to patriotism and America’s promise, Wilson argued that private homeowners and real estate brokers were obliged to resist so-called “forced housing” and government overreach via anti-discrimination laws. CREA took out full-page ads in California newspapers touting a “Bill of Rights” for property owners. (Among them: “The right to determine the acceptability and desirability of any prospective buyer of his property.”) It promised to “rescue the rights of the new ‘forgotten man’” — the American small property owner —  against “militant minorities” asking for “special privileges.” 

“We are involved in a great battle for liberty and freedom,” Wilson said in his broadside, which he dubbed “Gettysburg 1964.” “We have prepared a final resting place for the drive to destroy individual freedom.”

Does that language sound familiar? In Freedom to Discriminate, a new book that traces the role of the real estate profession in perpetuating U.S. housing segregation, author Gene Slater says there’s a reason the fight over California’s Prop 14, which passed in 1964, seems very contemporary. The terms of that debate weren’t just influential to the modern housing discourse, with its pitched battles over NIMBYismzoning, and “abolishing the suburbs.” They shaped decades of conservative thought and political positioning.

“The key idea of freedom here was the idea that there’s a single, narrow right, and you elevate it, you make it an absolute right,” says Slater, a longtime adviser for the affordable housing industry. “And when that’s something that’s absolute and can never be infringed upon, it means nobody else has rights.”

Freedom to Discriminate, his first book, takes a deep dive into the history of the real estate profession, from its emergence via local business associations at the dawn of the 20th century to the massive impact the real estate industry had on postwar housing and segregation. Slater was given unique access to the records and correspondences of many different groups, including CREA, which changed its name to the California Association of Realtors in 1975. 

He focuses on how the struggle for affordable housing in the civil rights era induced many real estate agents — who had long profited from and promoted segregated housing as a norm — to create a new way to describe what Slater calls “exclusive freedom.” That language has far outlived Proposition 14, which was struck down by the California Supreme Court in 1966 for violating the Equal Protection Clause. The way that real estate industry leaders in California railed against fair housing laws more than 50 years ago, informed by the vision and vocabulary of Wilson, echoes in much of today’s conservative rhetoric. Bloomberg CityLab talked to Slater about the progressive origins of real estate agents, how the industry helped spearhead the right-wing backlash to fair housing legislation, and why that debate is still going on today. The conversation has been edited and condensed. 

What I found so fascinating about the debate over Proposition 14 in California was the way that the language they used to support that initiative, about protecting freedom by allowing people to discriminate, was such a carbon copy of some of the language I’ve heard politicians use my entire life.

This almost never gets mentioned in the context of the wider impact of [these real estate agent campaigns] on the conservative movement. I spent five pages in the introduction trying to explain why nobody is talking about this. It was important to me to understand why those on the left in the civil rights movement ignore Prop 14 and say, “Well it’s sort of an aberration — that was racism that’s going away; eventually we triumph.” And on the right, the last thing they want is to give realtors the credit. 

Read entire article at Bloomberg CityLab