Power  /  Q&A

When Real Estate Agents Led the Fight Against Fair Housing

A new book argues that the real estate industry’s campaign to defend housing segregation still echoes in today’s politics.

You also point out that many cities were much less segregated before zoning laws and racial covenants — initiatives promoted by realtors. In Southern California cities, for example, Black, Mexican and Japanese-American populations were much more spread out in the early 1900s. Housing segregation can often seem, or be presented, as just a naturally occurring state of affairs that reflected the prejudices of residents.

It’s because there was no system to do it otherwise. It takes a cartel to control a rambunctious free market in which everybody wants to get the highest price for their home and purchase for the cheapest price. To limit that racially took an enormous effort, one that transformed the country. In the case of Pasadena, I don’t know all the details, but before more explicit residential segregation, there were middle-class Blacks and domestic servants in the city. They didn’t live five miles away from work, just on the next block.

The language of the Proposition 14 battle and the campaign to pass it is the idea that I have the freedom to sell my home to whomever I want or don’t want. It’s this idea of control again, that realtors and covenants can control the neighborhood. It smacks of the idea of that individual homeowners should be able to have a say in what happens to elsewhere in the neighborhood, which is embedded in a lot of today’s housing politics and debates.

It's the right of the neighbors to control what happens next door. That’s what “freedom of association” was. It was not about individual rights at all, just the opposite. The freedom to zone. The notion becomes that “freedom” is a community’s freedom to exclude and to limit. The link between these became, to me, maybe one of the key insights of writing this. What they were doing was using the language of libertarianism to mean the opposite — community conformity and insisting on tradition.

Despite the stereotype of the hippie, liberal ’60s, there was a big conservative backlash happening at the same time. When Proposition 14 was being debated, Martin Luther King, Jr. diverted his schedule to speak against it in California, because he recognized how damaging this language could be. 

A key point here is, opponents didn’t know how to answer that language, so the response was to discount it: “This is racism by another name, so let’s call these people out as racists. Let’s shame them, let’s attack them, let’s make people feel guilty about voting for this.” But when you make people feel guilty about what they’ve now come to see as their freedom, that’s a losing proposition. It’s only infuriating to people.

I think it’s important to say that ignoring that use of the language doesn’t work. It just feeds on itself, and it has been over the last 50 years. Basically, liberals have left the language of freedom to the right. That wasn’t the case in the early ’60s.