City Rising is a multimedia documentary program that traces gentrification and displacement through a lens of historical discriminatory laws and practices. Fearing the loss of their community’s soul, residents are gathering into a movement, not just in California, but across the nation as the rights to property, home, community and the city are taking center stage in a local and global debate. Learn more.
Fifty years ago, the United States Supreme Court upheld the California Supreme Court decision to overturn the controversial Prop 14 referendum.
Two years prior, in 1964, white Californians had voted overwhelmingly to approve the referendum, which declared the Rumford Fair Housing Act of 1963 null and void. The Rumford Act enabled the state’s Fair Employment Practices Commission to intervene on behalf of potential tenants and homebuyers. If a manager or homeowner was found to have refused rental or sale due to race, the FEPC in some cases could force them to rent or sell to the potential tenants or buyers in question. By some estimates, the law covered only 25 percent of the over 3.7 million single-family homes in California and less than 5 percent of its duplexes, triplexes and fourplexes, notes historian Daniel Martinez HoSang. Its greatest impact was on the 738,000 apartment complexes consisting of five or more units. Fellow historian Mark Brilliant concurs arguing, that “the bulk of California home and apartment owners remained free to discriminate on the basis of race when selling or leasing.” Proposition 14, however, sought to rescind the Rumford Act and earlier fair housing provisions that prohibited discrimination in public housing, apartment rentals and housing development.
Despite the Rumford Act’s limited scope, Proposition 14 garnered broad support. Statewide, the proposition achieved 65 percent approval, in L.A. County 70 percent. Minority voters, particularly black Californians had largely opposed Prop 14 in significant numbers, but the rhetoric of property rights, free markets and personal freedom won over the vast majority of whites in the state.
Ronald Regan used the Rumford Act as a whipping boy in his successful 1966 gubernatorial bid invoking what he and other conservatives saw not as racism but personal liberty: “I have never believed that majority rule has the right to impose on an individual as to what he does with his property. This has nothing to do with discrimination.” “It has to do with our freedoms, our basic freedom,” The California Real Estate Association (CREA) agreed. “I want to talk about the preservation of this real American,” one CREA representative asserted, “an individual who, at least up until now, has been endowed with personal freedom as to choice.”
Though some might view the 1967 ruling as an endpoint to housing equality, it really represents one more curve in the winding history of housing and race in California and the larger nation. Arguments against anti-discriminatory housing laws like the Rumford Act often rest on a belief in personal liberty, property rights and the operation of free markets. However, a closer look at Los Angeles housing history demonstrates the falsity of such notions and provides insights into America’s discriminatory housing narrative. The illusionary ideal of free markets in housing has helped cement our current housing inequity.
L.A. Housing 1900-1930
Southern California long exhibited a great deal of ethnic and racial diversity, but in 1900, whites still greatly outnumbered their Latino, Asian and Black counterparts. However, in 1930, as the city rapidly expanded from an overall population of 102,000 in 1900 to 1.2 million three decades later, larger numbers of Asians, African Americans and Latinos resided in the L.A. area: 45,000 African Americans, 97,000 Mexicans, 21,081 Japanese, 3,245 Filipinos and a shrinking Chinese population, probably less than 2,000, resided in the city by 1930. Due to the nearly simultaneous expansion of the railroad and citrus belt Mexican, Black and Asian immigration to Southern California quickly expanded.
Communities like Watts housed a multiracial stew of Japanese, European immigrants, Mexicans and Blacks. In Boyle Heights, large numbers of Jews lived alongside Mexicans and Mexican Americans. Sonoratown housed Mexican and Chinese Angelenos in fairly close proximity; the city’s original Chinatown was located in the same district. Beyond racial covenants, deed restrictions, and extralegal measures, the threat of violence, more than legislation, prevented housing integration and confined homeowners of color to places like East L.A.
In these early decades, Asian and Latino residents, more than African Americans, were the target of housing restrictions. In contrast, due to their shorter history in the region and their demographic paucity in comparison, Blacks were able to disperse across the city.
Numerous African Americans took advantage of the “bungalow boom” happening in Southern California in the early 20th century. As of 1910, 36 percent of black Angelenos owned their homes, compared to only 2.4 percent in NYC, 29.5 percent in Oakland, 11 percent in New Orleans and 16.5 percent in Birmingham. "Los Angeles is wonderful," gushed W.E.B. Dubois. "Nowhere in the United States is the Negro so well and beautifully housed ... Out here in this matchless Southern California there would seem to be no limit to your opportunities or your possibilities."
In response to growing numbers of minorities, whites drew starker lines of segregation. For example, between 1910 and 1920, the “concentration and segregation” of Blacks in Los Angeles rapidly increased, notes historian Lawrence De Graaf. By 1920, three-fourths of black Los Angeles lived in three of the city’s dozen assembly districts. The city’s Asian and Mexican residents experienced similar trends. Though a few exceptions existed during this period, notably Boyle Heights and Watts where populations remained more diverse, a booming Anglo population meant greater geographical and spatial isolation, especially for African Americans.
Restrictive covenants, agreements that prohibited the sale, lease or rent of a property to a non-white and in many cases Jews, had been in use since the late nineteenth century. Their use accelerated after 1910 as white attitudes toward black homeowners became increasingly hostile. For example, in 1916, a writer for the Los Angeles Times lamented “the insults that one has to take from a northern nigger especially a woman, let alone the property depreciation …” Blacks recognized this growing hostility; one black Angeleno told interviewers in 1917, it felt as if his housing tract was surrounded by “invisible walls of steel.”
The conclusion of World War I brought violent expressions of racism nationally as race riots washed over America’s urban centers. The violence proved so pervasive that the NAACP’s James Weldon Johnson darkly dubbed it “Red Summer.” In Los Angeles, whites channeled a similar intolerance into the enforcement of individual deed covenants while also organizing en mass through block protective associations to better reinforce racial covenants locally. Such actions spilled into legal rulings.
Before 1919, municipal courts had ruled racial covenants unenforceable by the judiciary or outright illegal. By 1919, the courts view on the subject changed. In a ruling that same year, the California Supreme Court declared that restrictions or use or occupancy by deed restrictions were legal even if outright restrictions against sale or lease to non-whites proved a violation of “state civil code.” This nuance opened the doors for much wider restrictions of the 1920s.
The Real Estate Industry Shapes National Policy
Professional organizations also began to cast a large influence. Formed in 1908, the National Association of Real Estate Boards (NAREB) promoted the use of racial covenants in new developments. Court rulings in Los Angeles upheld the legality of deed restrictions. When one black family bought a converted home in the south Central Avenue area, white property owners in the community sued, arguing their presence violated deed restrictions that by then, honeycombed the neighborhood. Local courts agreed. Three years later, the state Supreme Court ruled that restrictive covenants remained valid even if African Americans already occupied a community. The ruling forced black families to abandon any restricted properties they inhabited in West Los Angeles.
The New Deal creation of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Homeowners Loan Corporation (HOLC) opened up new opportunities for working people to purchase a home. However, its policies discouraged racial or ethnic heterogeneity and openly discriminated against non-white homeowners. Officials viewed communities with Blacks, Asians, Latinos, Jews and to a lesser extent newly arrived European immigrants, as risks. A series of maps produced by HOLC in 1939 give visual representation to this policy, Los Angeles’s not least among them.
Federal policies institutionalized local practices into formal regulation and shaped the flow of credit to white households at the expense of non-whites for decades to come. For all the talk of free markets, federal housing policy intervened directly and did so by favoring white homeowners over their minority counterparts. Moreover, it prevented home loans that might enable owners to perform needed maintenance or conduct renovations. Due to housing covenants non-white homeowners often resided in older homes that required greater upkeep. Without such loans housing stock in minority communities naturally declined and fed stereotypes about minorities not caring for homes despite the fact they’d been denied such opportunities.
Perhaps even more perversely, when FHA official John McGovern conducted a study of the agency’s loans to African American homeowners between 1944 and 1948, he discovered not a single default out of 1,136 loans and a delinquency rate of less than one percent, equal to that of whites. Stereotypes depicting Blacks as susceptible to default or delinquency proved just that, a stereotype.
The courts of the 1920s represented an obstacle to more equitable housing policy, but by the mid to late 1940s, they offered some relief. In 1946, NAACP attorney Loren Miller represented a group of African American homeowners living in West Adams after the West Adams Improvement Association sued them for violating the restrictive covenants that pervaded the community. Miller and his clients emerged victorious first in Superior Court and then upon appeal in the state Supreme Court. Miller and the NAACP went on to represent African Americans in the Shelley v. Kraemer case (1948) in which the United States Supreme Court struck down racial covenants as legally unenforceable. The Los Angeles Sentinel proclaimed on its front page: “California Negroes Can Now Live Anywhere!”
Unfortunately, the headline proved too optimistic since the court had not fully invalidated covenants. “White homeowners” historian Josh Sides notes, “were still free to voluntarily enter into covenants and demand their neighbors do the same.” Whites in communities like Leimert Park resorted to bombings to prevent black homeowners from settling in the neighborhood. It would not be until a second Supreme Court ruling in 1953 that covenants finally met their end.
The Unequal And Not So Free Post-War Housing Markets
The housing market that emerged in the years that followed remained highly unequal. The structure of home loans still largely favored whites. Postwar housing construction and suburbanization largely excluded Asians, Latinos and Blacks. Of the 125,000 FHA units constructed in Los Angeles County from 1950 to 1954, non-whites had access to less than three percent; nationally, the number fell below two percent.
The complexities of a racialized housing policy unfolded in unexpected ways. Despite past discrimination, Jews first found passage to suburban environs. In 1950, 22,000 Jewish families lived in San Fernando Valley. By the late 1950s and 1960s, Asians and Latinos followed, though in smaller numbers. Today’s multiracial suburbs of the San Gabriel Valley attest to this movement. African Americans, however, did not experience the same access to new housing and experienced greater hostility than their counterparts, though better off African Americans would plant roots in places like Compton and Willowbrook.
Some whites continued to resort to extralegal measures. During the 1950s, six bombings and four incidents of arson against black homeowners were recorded in Los Angeles County by the County Commission on Human Rights. During the same period, out of 95 “racial ‘housing incidents’” nearly 75 percent were against African Americans with the rest divided between Japanese and Mexican Californians.
With the exodus of some racial and ethnic groups to the suburbs along with housing and mortgage policies that punished non-whites, communities like Boyle Heights and Watts became increasingly segregated. Once multiethnic and multiracial earlier in the century they became singularly Mexican American or African American. These communities struggled not only due to a concentration of poverty and a decline in transportation opportunities as a result of the collapse of public transit in city, but also because the Los Angeles municipal government diverted funds for traffic safety, sanitation and street maintenance from poorer districts while also ignoring or relaxing zoning ordinances so that commercial growth might occur in residential areas.
Urban renewal policies and highway construction did not help either as each ravaged both communities in Los Angeles and others like it nationally. Between 1956 and 1966, city residents witnessed the loss of 37,000 units annually, often impacting working class brown and black communities the heaviest. Completed in the 1960s, the East Los Angeles Interchange barreled through the old Boyle Heights community, disrupting the original neighborhood and displacing residents. Freeway construction furthered the destruction of multiethnic spaces and accelerated the “trend to postwar agglomeration of racially segregated communities,” argues historian Eric Avila. Working class urban white residents also absorbed the damaging effects of such policies but did not face the same racial restrictions in housing as their minority counterparts.