It’s Wednesday, August 28, 1963 in Washington, D.C., and civil rights activist Bayard Rustin is at the podium. This is the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It is not Rustin’s first march, nor his last, but it is, at the time, the largest in U.S. history—nearly 250,000 people strong, most of them African American. Rustin is there with the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who speaks first. “I want to introduce now Brother Bayard Rustin, who will read the demands of the March on Washington Movement. Everyone must listen to these demands,” says King. “That is why we are here.”
Most people recall King’s “I Have a Dream” speech from that historic day, not Rustin’s call for basic civil rights for African Americans. But those demands are what drove the ensuing civil rights legislation. Two of the 10, notably, include housing—a call for comprehensive civil rights legislation that includes decent housing and an executive order that bans discrimination in all housing supported by federal funds.
By the early ’60s, efforts to end housing discrimination had sprung up all over the country. New York City went first in 1957. Colorado and California soon followed. But change, it is clear, happens slowly, in fits and starts, and not without virulent and extreme protest. People even put money on the line. Case in point: Near Seattle, a mixed-race family, the Guilmets, purchased a home in picturesque Edmonds, only to have their neighbors pool $50,000 to buy the house back. The Guilmets’ neighbors cloaked their racial fears in the language of “property value” and “property rights.”
Indeed, the notion of property rights was one of the last stands against what would become known as fair housing. In 1963, the same year as the March on Washington, the National Association of Real Estate Boards (NAREB), now known as the National Association of REALTORS® (NAR), introduced the Property Owners’ Bill of Rights. On the one hand, it suggested that the government recognize that all Americans deserve a fair shot at home-ownership, no matter their race or religion. On the other, it argued that the government should respect the sovereign rights of the property owner, whatever those may be.
The text reads, "The individual property owner, regardless of race, color, or creed, must be allowed under law to retain the right to determine acceptability of any prospective buyer or tenant of his property." The idea was to let the free market decide who lives where.
The Fair Housing Act
Unfortunately, for many years, the free market ended up supporting racial bias and stereotyping. But in 1968, the issue of fair housing finally came to a head.
After what would become known as “the long, hot summer of 1967,” a series of more than 150 race riots across the U.S., the 1968 Kerner Commission proclaimed what most people already knew: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.” The Kerner Commission found segregation at fault for the riots and, as a remedy, called for fair housing.
The result was the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the last of the three great pieces of civil rights legislation of the ’60s. Simply put, it prohibited discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing. But it was far from simple to pass the law. President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had failed miserably in his fight to secure similar housing policy two years earlier, said as much: “Few in the Nation … believed that fair housing would—in our time—become the unchallenged law of this land.”
Walter Mondale, who co-authored the bill that became the Fair Housing Act, would later write of the legislation, “[I]t also has the more dubious distinction of being the most contested, most ignored and, at times, most misunderstood of those laws.”
Indeed, the Fair Housing Act may not have ever passed if not for the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968. As Washington Post reporter DeNeen Brown wrote on the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, “Only hours after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination … President Lyndon B. Johnson began calculating how to use the nation’s shock, grief and anger to push a major civil rights law through a racist Congress.” The bill was signed into law a week later.
While the Fair Housing Act proclaimed an end to the most egregious forms of housing discrimination, it was far from a panacea. Foes of open housing policies managed to declaw the legislation, stripping the newly formed Department of Housing and Urban Development of the authority to do anything to actually stop or prosecute discrimination. This landmark piece of legislation was, on many levels, an empty promise, especially in economic terms. By the time the federal government stood alongside working- and middle-class African Americans who wanted to buy into the suburban dream, those homes were no longer the affordable stepping stone to wealth that they once were.
The “New Town” Movement
In the early ‘60s, another private sector reaction to the hydra of housing discrimination, white flight, urban decay, and suburban malaise emerged. The “New Town” movement was an effort to plan and create urban communities that embraced racial and socioeconomic diversity, and blended suburban and urban characteristics, from scratch. Call it the anti-Levittown.
The first of such New Town developments broke ground in Reston, Virginia in 1962. Located within commuting distance of Washington D.C., Reston was envisioned as a town of 75,000, spread across separate village centers. One such center, Lake Anne Plaza, featured mixed housing, both apartments and family homes, as well as a central shopping area, schools, gas stations, two churches, and a manmade lake.
Real estate developer Robert E. Simon’s goals for Reston were lofty, and pretty admirable: “Economic viability; ecological preservation; self-containment in retail facilities, recreation, and employment; a socioeconomic and racial mix of residents; community participation and identity; and a vaguely defined new leisure lifestyle.”
And in many ways, the experiment worked. In 2018, Money magazine ranked Reston one of the best places to live in Virginia, lauding its bike paths and open space, if not the snarling traffic to D.C. But the racial and socioeconomic diversity at the core of Simon’s vision had not truly come to pass. As of the 2010 Census, the African-American population of Reston was 9.68 percent, less than half the state average.
And Yet, a Quiet Optimism
Despite the rampant civil unrest, the 1960s also brought with them an optimism and creativity that comes with being the most prosperous nation in the world.
Such optimism extended to housing as well. Aesthetically, the modest, monotonous Cape Cods of iconic Levittown, New York, gave way to more impressive, modernist designs. The Space Race, in effect, inspired the sprawling Atomic Ranch and futuristic Googie architecture. As architectural writer Lee Bey put it, “Space and modernism connected to give us nearly 20 years worth of boomerang-shaped gas stations and amoeba-like signage.”
Economically, the meteoric rise in homeownership stabilized, increasing just one point to 62.9 percent in the 1960s. However, median home value continued to grow—it went up $5,100 in that same period. The ‘60s also saw new types of housing such as condominiums, which gave first-time buyers a novel way to gain all the benefits of homeownership at a lower price point and the iconic Sunbelt retirement communities, with their bowling alleys, golf courses, ceramic classes, carports, and air conditioning.
Racially, by 1970, thanks to the Fair Housing Act, homeownership began to increase for African Americans at every income level (until 2001, when the subprime mortgage scandal erased three decades of gains—but that’s another story). All told, 42.6 percent of African Americans were homeowners in 1970—20 percent more than in 1940, but still lower than the lowest white homeownership rate in the U.S. in that century. The overall gap between white and African American ownership has hardly changed since. Fair housing was—and still is—far from fair, which isn’t so surprising when you consider that the majority of white Americans got a 30-year head start.