Earlier this month marked a half-century since President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the landmark Fair Housing Act of 1968. The bill was designed to ensure housing opportunity for all Americans, regardless of race, religion, color, country of origin, family status, disability or gender.
Also known as Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act, this historic piece of legislation became law just one week after the assassination of one of its strongest proponents, Dr. Martin Luther King.
At the time, not everyone in the real estate industry was onboard with the changes inherent in this law. Yet this year, the National Association of Realtors has proclaimed April as National Fair Housing Month, and California Real Estate magazine is commemorating the anniversary with articles about fair housing throughout the year.
“Fair housing makes us stronger, not weaker,” says Steve White, president of the California Association of Realtors. “Realtors are the stewards of the right to own, use and transfer private property, and our livelihood depends on maintaining a free, open market that embraces equal opportunity.”
While among the most important, the Fair Housing Act was not the first time Congress wrestled with issues of who could and who could not own property. Here are a few important dates in the history of property rights in the United States and California:
1789 – Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution added property rights for white males.
1866 – After Emancipation and the end of the Civil War, the Civil Rights Act of 1866 was passed. Among its provisions, all male citizens born in the United States, regardless of race, had the same property rights as white male citizens, to own, occupy and transfer real estate. Property rights for women varied widely by state.
1909 – The National Association of Real Estate Exchange (now the National Association of Realtors) was founded. The organization initially excluded women and minorities from membership, and opposed numerous early fair housing attempts. Today, 63 percent of Realtors are women; about 20 percent of Realtors are black, Latino or members of another ethnic minority.
1917 – The U.S. Supreme Court declared racially biased zoning unconstitutional.
1924 – C.A.R. added a Women’s Division. It would take another 14 years – until 1938 – before the national association formed a Women’s Council.
1947 – The National Association of Real Estate Brokers was founded in Tampa, Florida, in 1947 ‘as an equal opportunity and civil rights advocacy organization for African American real estate professionals, consumers, and communities in America.”
1948 – The U.S. Supreme Court ended enforcement of racially restrictive covenants. Covenants, which are part of something known as CC&Rs (covenants, codes and restrictions), are regulations established by developers when building new homes. Most of these regulations are fairly innocuous and many even sunset after a short period of time. They are intended to establish how a subdivision will be developed. But before this ruling, they commonly included discriminatory language, prohibiting the sale of the property to buyers of certain racial, ethnic or religious groups. These covenants remain part of the history of the property but are no longer enforceable.
1959 – California passes the Unruh Civil Rights Act of 1958, making it one of the first states in the nation to prohibit discrimination by businesses, housing and public accommodations based on age, ancestry, color, disability, race, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender or sexual orientation.
1963 – The legislature passes and Gov. Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Sr. signs the Rumford Fair Housing Act. Named for Northern California’s first African-American legislator, the bill aimed to prevent racial discrimination by landlords and property owners by denying housing based on ethnicity, religion, gender, marital status, disability or familial status.
1964 – Proposition 14, supported by the California Real Estate Association, was passed by voters. It modified the California constitution and nullified the Rumford act.
1966 – The California Supreme Court overturned Proposition 14, ruling that it violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
April 11, 1968 – President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1968 into law. The act includes the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin.
June 1968 – The U.S. Supreme Court, in Jones vs. Mayer, upholds the Civil Rights Act of 1866, prohibiting “all racial discrimination, private as well as public, in the sale or rental of property.”
1971 – The U.S. Supreme Court, in Reed vs. Reed, ruled that the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment prohibits differential treatment based on gender.
Although much has improved over the years, housing discrimination continues in many places.
Bill Brown was elected the first African-American president of C.A.R. in 2008 and served as president of N.A.R. in 2017. In a letter last year to Dr. Benjamin Carson, secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Brown wrote: There remains “palpable and measurable segregation in our housing markets.”
These days, N.A.R. and C.A.R. work diligently to protect property rights for all.
Cher Wollard is a Realtor with Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices Drysdale Properties in Livermore.