Monday, January 21, 2013

Prop 14 and the Struggle for Fair Housing in California

"Men hate each other because they fear, they fear because they do not know one another, and they do not know one another because they are separated."

--Martin Luther King Jr, speaking in Los Angeles at a 1964 anti-prop 14 rally

In 1963, the California State Legislature passed the Rumford Fair Housing Act, which sought to address widespread housing discrimination and segregation in California.  For years, non-whites had been excluded from buying or renting property in many neighborhoods across California by racially restrictive housing covenants, which were created and enforced by realtors and homeowners associations, because non-whites were perceived to drive down property values.  

Assemblyman William Byron Rumford.

According to historian Daniel Martinez HoSang, "Bodies like the Southwest Realty Board in Los Angeles formed 'race restrictions committees' to organize homeowners to maintain racial restrictions, publicizing their success in the California Real Estate Association magazine."  It was racist housing covenants that created the widespread housing segregation across cities in California, even in my own hometown of Fullerton.

To address this social problem/injustice, California legislators William Byron Rumford, with the support of others like Augustus Hawkins and Jesse Unruh, introduced the Fair Housing Bill, which sought to make racially restrictive housing covenants illegal.  The bill passed in 1963.

In response, the National Association for Real Estate Boards and the California Real Estate Associaion mobilized their 45,000 members and 171 local realty boards to get a proposition on the ballot to overturn the Fair Housing Act.  A 1964 Advertisement in the Oakland Tribune spelled out their argument:

"RUMFORD ACT FORCED HOUSING"
COMMITTEE FOR HOME PROTECTION

In September 1963, the Rumford Act became state law.  Heretofore, a man's home was his castle.  The Rumford Act makes a man's home subject to the whims of a politically appointed State Board…The politically appointed Commission can FORCE you to sell or rent your home to an individual NOT OF YOUR CHOICE.  Most people believe that a man has the right to sell, rent, or lease his property to whomever he wishes; consequently they OPPOSE the Rumford Act…VOLUNTEERS NEEDED TO CIRCULATE PETITIONS. (Source: Racial Propositions: Ballot Initiatives and the Making of Postwar California by Daniel Martinez HoSang)

The realtors and their supporters were successful in getting Prop 14 on the 1964 ballot, and thus began a widely public debate over the issue of fair housing in California.  Both sides used the language of "rights."  Those opposed to Prop 14 spoke of the rights of non-whites to rent or purchase property.  Those in favor of Prop 14 spoke of property owners' rights to choose whom to sell or rent to.

"Get Back Your Rights," Committee for Home Protection flyer in favor of Proposition 14, 1964.  Courtesy of Max Mont Papers, Urban Archives Center, Oviatt Library, California State University, Northridge.

Many heavy-hitters in the Civil Rights Movement (which was in full force in 1964) weighed in on the issue.  Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at an anti-14 rally in Los Angeles, stating, "Men hate each other because they fear, they fear because they do not know one another, and they do not know one another because they are separated."

Ultimately, Prop 14 passed by a margin of 65 to 35 percent, striking down the Fair Housing Act.  According to Lucien Haas, the press secretary appointed by governor Pat Brown to work on the anti-14 campaign, "Proposition 14 shattered [the myth] for me," as he realized, "My God, we're facing racism in the state of California."

In 1966, the California Supreme Court ruled in Mulkey vs. Reitman that Prop 14 was unconstitutional.  One realtor who ultimately changed his mind about Prop 14 stated, "The right we are giving up is the right to discriminate on the basis of race.  Is that a right we want to bat for?  I don't think this is a thing we should do a lot of breast-beating about.  It is not a laudable right in the first place."  Another inquired, "I wonder if we are not in favor of this type of legislation because we are men of property and men who have not ever been discriminated against?"

"Don't Legalize Hate," Californians against Proposition 14 flyer, 1964.  The image on this brochure was also featured on billboards across the state.  Courtesy of Max Mont Papers, Urban Archives Center, Oviatt Library, California State University, Northridge.

Even though Prop 14 was ultimately struck down, it made clear the fact that California was deeply divided about the issue of housing integration, and remains so today.  Today, in 2013, despite what we tell ourselves about civil rights progress, there remains widespread (unofficial) housing segregation in many California cities.  This issue of fair housing and de-segregation is one that REMAINS unresolved in California today.  The struggle continues.

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