The Unfulfilled Promise of Fair Housing

Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of an integrated America was about creating a more equal society, but to many white homeowners, it was a threat.

Martin Luther King Jr. stands outside a real estate office window in Chicago on November 3, 1966 (Charles Knoblock / AP)
Editor’s Note: Read The Atlantic’s special coverage of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy.

“Kill him,” a white mob chanted as Martin Luther King Jr. marched across Marquette Park in the late summer of 1966. King had recently moved to Chicago, and on that August afternoon, he joined a Chicago Freedom Movement march to demand that realtors not discriminate against black residents seeking to live in white neighborhoods. But a group of white counter-protesters grew violent and started hurling rocks, bottles, and bricks at the demonstrators, eventually striking King in the head. “I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen—even in Mississippi and Alabama—mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’ve seen here in Chicago,” he said, shining light on a problem that white Northern liberals had ignored and let fester for far too long: de facto segregation.

Up until the civil-rights era, segregation was largely reinforced, if not promoted, by federal and local governments. In the 1930s, for example, the Federal Housing Administration incentivized developers to build suburbs for whites only, and the Public Works Administration built separate and unequal housing projects. After a series of Supreme Court cases deemed segregation unconstitutional in the 1940s and ’50s, American neighborhoods continued to segregate without legal recognition, in a system described as “de facto.” And like de jure segregation—when the government legally engineered ghettos into existence—de facto segregation continues to exacerbate wealth and racial inequality today.

In spite of King’s civil-rights work in the North, which focused on fair and open housing, resistance to integration has been commonplace in liberal and conservative places alike, firmly rooted in sentiments similar to the ones behind the 1930s housing policies that systematically disadvantaged African Americans. Earlier this year, when the Trump administration delayed an Obama-era rule that incentivized metropolitan areas across the country to desegregate, it was not acting out of step with the nation’s long history of housing discrimination. In fact, since King’s death, the government has seldom taken seriously its promise to desegregate communities, and most of its efforts to do so have been lackluster. That’s no accident; it’s a response to many white constituents who don’t want to see integration happen.

The continued resistance to integration is not about residents bending to the will of a free market; it’s about the preservation of white wealth, a measurable guarantee for the advancement of white Americans at the cost of everyone else. That means better schools for white children, better job opportunities for white professionals, and better health care for all white Americans. There’s a fear that white wealth cannot exist without black poverty, and so some see segregation as an essential tool to keep that dichotomy alive.

The violence that King faced in Marquette Park didn’t come out of nowhere. While the segregationists of the south irked the white Northerner’s conscience, the segregated realities of Chicago or New York seemed more nuanced. To them, Northern segregation was an issue of economics, not race—though their vehement resistance to integration indicates it was at least a combination of the two. King’s renewed focus on the racist housing structures of progressive metropolitan areas cost him the support of white allies, and he grew increasingly unpopular in the last few years of his life. But his assassination, and the riots that ensued, prompted Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1968—a part of which is the Fair Housing Act—and turn his vision for Chicago into federal law.

Yet 50 years later, America is still sharply segregated. According to a study by the Brookings Institution, 76 percent of black Chicago-area residents, for example, would have to move in order to fully integrate the region, and another study showed that some cities like Los Angeles are resegregating. That’s partly because up until recently, the federal government left a critical part of the Fair Housing Act behind: the requirement to affirmatively further fair housing. While the law is mostly known for outlawing racial discrimination in real estate, it also called for a government program to desegregate communities. “People forget that the second part of the Fair Housing Act was to actively promote an integrated society,” Brian Gilmore, a law professor at Michigan State University, said. “And you need to not just promote it, you need to actually make it happen.”

But since President Lyndon Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act into law, serious integration efforts on the federal level have been curbed. Johnson’s immediate successor, Richard Nixon, derailed his own secretary of Housing and Urban Development’s integration program, which withdrew federal funds from jurisdictions that did not comply with the civil-rights law. The secretary, George Romney, had been committed to reversing the segregated housing patterns that the government helped engineer, saying that the suburbs were a “high-income white noose” around black inner cities. But Romney’s program, which he called “Open Communities,” faced backlash from Nixon’s political advisers, and the president publicly denounced it as “forced integration.”

Nixon’s views on housing ran directly against King’s dream of an integrated America. “I am convinced that while legal segregation is totally wrong,” Nixon wrote, “forced integration of housing or education is just as wrong.” Much to the delight of his reelection campaign, Nixon successfully thwarted Romney’s program and eventually forced the secretary out of his administration. A 2012 ProPublica investigation found that since then, HUD has only twice held federal funds from jurisdictions for violating the Fair Housing Act. In fact, Nixon’s early steps to dismantle the housing act were so influential that 40 years after Romney resigned, his son, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, suggested that he may eliminate HUD altogether during a private fundraiser for his 2012 campaign.

“The reason that an aggressive program like [George Romney’s] hasn’t been done since is that there’s no political support for it,” said Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute and author of The Color of Law. “And part of the reason there’s no political support for it is because we’ve adopted this myth that the government wasn’t responsible for segregation, and so there’s no governmental responsibility for undoing it.”

The reality, however, is that the government is uniquely responsible for creating slums, which King viewed as “a system of internal colonialism not unlike the exploitation of the Congo by Belgium.” In the 1930s, the government-sponsored Home Owners’ Loan Corporation introduced the private-sector to redlining when it produced color-coded maps of urban areas; black neighborhoods were marked in red, which indicated that they were the riskiest areas to insure mortgages. Consequently, white residents received virtually all loans from the Federal Housing Administration between 1934 and 1962. “But for this kind of government policy, we would not have the segregated patterns that we have today,” Rothstein said.

The FHA was so determined to keep African Americans out of white neighborhoods that it provided methods for doing so in its underwriting manual, which stated that “natural or artificially established barriers will prove effective in protecting a neighborhood and the locations within it from adverse influences … [which] includes prevention of the infiltration of business and industrial uses, lower class occupancy, and inharmonious racial groups.” As Rothstein writes in his book, the FHA favored areas that built highways through and between neighborhoods to keep them separated on the basis of race. In one instance, the FHA refused to guarantee loans for homes in a Detroit development adjacent to a black neighborhood unless the developer built a wall to keep the black neighbors out. “The reason federal agencies are on the hook in the first place is that they created the segregated and unequal society that we have today,” Katherine O’Regan, a former HUD official, said.

As Rothstein told WHYY’s Terry Gross, the FHA rationalized their segregation tactics on the faulty premise that home values would depreciate if African Americans moved into—or near—white neighborhoods. But this was not the case. “The reality is that when African Americans moved into white neighborhoods, the property values went up simply because African Americans were willing to pay more for housing than whites since their supply was so restricted,” Rothstein told me. In fact, property values only declined when real-estate agents scared homeowners into selling their properties at a low price by telling them that black and brown residents were moving into their neighborhood—a practice known as blockbusting. (The realtors would then proceed to resell those homes to African Americans at higher prices.)

Part of the reason that fair and open housing, of all of King’s legacies, has had such difficulty gaining traction is that homeowners are particularly sensitive about losing control of their neighborhoods. “A lot of civil rights was about making the South behave and taking the teeth from George Wallace,” Walter Mondale, who co-authored the Fair Housing Act, said in an interview for ProPublica. “This came right to the neighborhoods across the country. This was civil rights getting personal.”

Today, many homeowners still operate under the same unfounded notion that the FHA used to promote its racist housing policies. “I think that there is a perception that people of color are inferior neighbors, and that they bring down the value of a neighborhood,” said Cedric M. Powell, a law professor at the University of Louisville. Throughout the nation’s history, there has been a persisting racist notion that blackness cheapens the value of society, while only whiteness can enrich it. That begins to explain why white residents continue to resist integration: The mere perception of black residents in a neighborhood stirs worry of declining housing prices. It also explains why establishments don’t want black customers; why Hollywood executives don’t want black actors; why white voters don’t want black representatives; and why the president wants immigrants from Norway instead of Haiti. In that sense, the struggle for fair housing is no different than any other struggle in America: It poses a threat to white wealth, a threat of a more equal society.

While white homeowners are worried about property value depreciation, many African Americans don’t have the privilege of sharing such a concern. As of 2016, the median net worth of white families is close to 10 times that of their black counterparts. “The refusal of the FHA to permit African Americans into the suburbs that it was creating is primarily responsible for that wealth gap,” Rothstein said. “While the white working class bought homes in places like Levittown and gained wealth from the appreciation of their properties, African Americans—who were explicitly prohibited by federal regulation to buy those homes—gained none of that equity.”

Integration won’t happen on its own. That’s why King envisioned a government effort to actively reverse the segregation patterns that it created. “Saying, ‘let people choose to live wherever they want’ is not enough,” O’Regan said. But Ben Carson, the current secretary of HUD, believes that the Obama administration’s “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” rule was a case of “social engineering”—the idea that a government push for integration is unnatural because it defies market forces. It may well be that encouraging low-income residents to move to middle- and upper-class neighborhoods is social engineering, but integration is no more a case of social engineering than segregation was and continues to be.

With the recent delay of the “Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing” rule, integration will become more difficult to achieve. “Any place that had an inclination to possibly continue policies that perpetuate segregation, this delay gives them more freedom to do that,” O’Regan said. In postponing the rule, the Trump administration is following in Nixon’s footsteps, making yet another attempt to dismantle the Fair Housing Act and, in a broader sense, King’s legacy.

While explicit racial exclusion is illegal, economic exclusionary zoning laws, which disproportionately impact people of color, still exist in major American cities. When the case of Arlington Heights, a Chicago suburb, made it all the way to the Supreme Court in 1977 for refusing to build multi-family units—a tactic that discourages lower-income people from moving into the neighborhood—the Court decided that the zoning ordinance was constitutional. Five months ago, that same Chicago suburb rejected a proposal to build a multi-family apartment building because of its proximity to a single-family neighborhood, citing concerns that it was not the right fit for the area. “There are racially prejudiced attitudes on the part of the white population that resists any effort to integrate,” Rothstein said. “It’s masked as economic elitism, but it’s fundamentally racially based.” In 2017, Arlington Heights was still less than 2 percent African American.

When King was asked about the violent incident in Marquette park, he said, “Oh, I’ve been hit so many times I’m immune to it.” But after 50 years of devastating blows, it seems his legacy is not.