National issues

Part 2: 40 years after passage of the Fair Housing Act, still waiting for integrated communities

In the previous post I explored the debate and political process that went into the passage of the Fair Housing Act.  Today, I’ll explore the political considerations that restrained the implementation on the Act and crippled our commitment as a nation to achieving the ultimate goal of residential integration.

As we have already seen passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968 passed after more than 20 years of delay do to opposition from southern Democrats and conservative Republicans.  In addition to the constituency of racist southerners, opposition came from Northern ethnic home owners.  Suburban and ethnic opposition to open housing legislation was violently demonstrated in the response to Dr. King’s housing initiative in Chicago in 1966.

It was a tragic combination of Dr. King’s assassination, widespread urban rioting and President Johnson’s political skills that forced passage of the the Fair Housing Act in 1968.  Yet, as I noted previously the bill’s authors, Walter Mondale and Edward Brooke saw the bill, as did proponents of housing rights, as only a first step in the “open housing” movement.

The bill was termed the Fair Housing Act, yet the term Fair Housing was nowhere defined.  The Act had at least three goals:

* Elimination of explicit discrimination on the basis of race;
* Creation of integrated communities; and
* Breaking up ghettos occupied by poor and minority households.

The question was whether the Act would be implemented as a narrow set of legal rights aimed only at achieving the first goal or be used as a broader mandate to attack ghettos and widespread housing segregation along the same lines that school desegregation was being pursued.  Narrowly applied the Fair Housing Act might would rely on voluntarily compliance and private enforcement.  Advocates of open housing knew that this would never breach the well established walls of residential racial segregation in America.

Enactment came near the end of the Johnson Administration, meaning it would be left to the winner of the 1968 presidential election to define and implement Fair Housing.

The politics of the 1968 election on the Democratic side involved a three way race between Vice President Hubert Humphrey and Senators Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy.  Implementation of the law was front and center at the critical Democratic primary debate prior to the California election held less than two months after passage of the Fair Housing Act.

Asked how to cure poverty in the ghettos, Robert Kennedy talked about his public-private sector pilot program to create housing in distressed neighborhoods in New York City.

Eugene McCarthy responded, “…I would say we have to get into the suburbs, too, with this kind of housing because some of the jobs are in the city and some jobs are being built there-but most of the employment is now in the belt line outside of the cities and I don’t think we ought to perpetuate the ghetto if we can help it, even by putting better homes there for them or low-cost houses…”

McCarthy warned against “adopting a kind of apartheid in this country,” noting “some of the housing has got to go out of the ghetto, so there is a distribution of the races throughout the whole structure of our cities and into our rural areas.”

Kennedy responded, “I am all in favor of moving people out of the ghettos…You say you are going to take ten thousand black people and move them into Orange county. The people who graduate from high school which are only three out of ten of the people-or of children who go to these schools, only three out of ten who graduate from high school and the ones who graduate from high school hav[ing] the equivalent of an eighth-grade education. So to take them out of where 40 percent don’t have any jobs at all-that is what you are talking about. If you are talking about one hundred people, that is one thing. But if you are talking about hitting this problem in a major way-to take these people out, put them in the suburbs where they can’t afford the housing, where their children can’t keep up with the schools and where they don’t have the skills for the jobs, it is just going to be catastrophic.”

One author has written, “That Kennedy statement-and McCarthy’s neglect to respond to it with vigor-decided the California primary. It was as if George Wallace had entered the contest with respect to Orange county on Kennedy’s side.”

Kennedy won the California Democratic primary and effectively knocked McCarthy out of the race.  A few days later Robert Kennedy was assassinated.  Richard Nixon defeated the Democratic nominee Hubert Humphrey in the general election.

Implementation of the Fair Housing Act thus became President Nixon’s responsibility.

As President Nixons HUD Secretary George Romney advocated integrating suburbs with low income housing, incurring the wrath of the President.
As President Nixon's HUD Secretary George Romney advocated integrating suburbs with low income housing, incurring the wrath of the President.

According to Dean J. Kotlowski, in a book titled Nixon’s Civil Rights, when one presidential task recommended “a strong national policy” of “carrots and sticks” to move low income housing from ghettos to suburbs, and another, on low-income housing pressed the government to use its community assistance programs to overcome racial and economic discrimination in housing, Nixon scrawled on the memo. “E[hrlichman]. I am absolutely opposed to this.  Knock it in the head now.”

Nixon’s secretary of housing and urban development, George Romney, a moderate Republican, pursued a moderate integrationist approach that ran afoul of Nixon.

Kotlowski describes Nixon’s attitude…

Following the GOPs lackluster showing in the mid-term elections of 1970, the President informed his staff that he wanted to shore up his suburban base and make changes in his cabinet.  Ehrlichman predicted that Romney would resign over the suburban integration issue because he and Van Dusen, “really believe in forced interg[ration] of housing.” Nixon repeated that he himself “deeply disbelieves in it” arguing that the government “can’t force blacks into housing — or we’ll have a war.  It just won’t work—we’ll get reseg[regration]” though white flight. Nixon urged his staff to nail every Democratic senator to the cause of “compulsory integrated housing.”  He planned to paint Romney as a proponent of forced integration and compel him to quit.

Romney resigned as HUD Secretary in 1972.

According Charles M. Lamb, writing in Housing Segregation in Suburban America Since 1960, Nixon “left a lasting imprint by seizing policy-making power from his HUD secretary, centralizing that power in the White House, and narrowly construing the meaning of the Fair Housing Act”.  Succeeding Presidents all came to see suburban housing integration was the third rail of American politics.

President Carter famously remarked, “I see nothing wrong with ethnic purity [of neighborhoods} being maintained. I would not force racial integration of a neighborhood by government action.”

I started my commitment to housing justice for people and communities with low incomes in 1975 in Austin's Clarksville community. These years of working side-by-side with dedicated community leaders to find solutions to housing and community development challenges have taught me some things and I’m learning new things every day.

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