Above: protestors against Prop. 14 in 1964 mock the California Real Estate Association (CREA), the organization that led the Prop. 14 effort.
“I can sympathize and empathize with the frustration, dismay and disappointment experienced in unsuccessful attempts to acquire housing in the bigoted ‘International City’ of Long Beach. I have not been able to rent an apartment after searching for almost three months—indubitably due to the fact that I am a Negro.”
This is what Professor Abdirahman Timir Ali had written in the Long Beach Fair Housing Foundation Newsletter in 1965.
It was a frightening reality when it comes to real estate during the 1960s: a black person of any affluence, be they a professor at an esteemed university or a hard trade worker, could be denied face-to-face a house simply on the basis that they were black.
I mean bluntly: a person selling or renting a home could shrug their shoulders, say they don’t do that kinda thing for Negroes, shut the door—and absolutely nothing legally could be done about it.
When it comes to Long Beach, what these practices ultimately led to were how neighborhoods were shaped, from what type of infrastructure was involved to white flight, leaving neighborhoods hanging with no future investment—particularly West and North Long Beach.
We do, by no means, live in a real estate utopia but we have taken incredible steps forward. But these racist practices were vehemently fought against in Los Angeles County—and largely through the efforts of citizens in Long Beach.
In 1959, Assemblyman William Byron Rumford [pictured below]—the first black person from Northern California to serve in the Legislature—headed the campaign for anti-discriminatory legislation in California, proposing the creation of the Fair Employment Practices Commission as well as a civil rights bill known as the Unruh Civil Rights Act.
Unruh was clear on its intentions, that “all persons within the jurisdiction of the state are free and equal, and entitled to the full and equal accommodation, advantages, facilities and privileges or services in all business establishments of any kind whatsoever.”
Despite heavy Republican opposition, Unruh passed.
Come four years later, Rumford decided to tackle the subject again because he was deeply concerned over two very big issues: that weaknesses in earlier fair housing legislation he himself led and that the influence of the larger civil rights struggle nationwide meant fighting important political issues like the creation of a permanent Fair Employment Practices Commission at the state level—a battle that black Californians had been struggling with between 1946 and 1959, when the California Fair Employment Practices Act passed.
Rumford succeeded: the Fair Housing Act of 1963, dubbed the Rumford Act, was passed by both the Assembly and Senate, prohibiting public and private property owners to discriminate sales based “ethnicity, religion, sex, marital status, physical handicap, or familial status.”
This led to what some felt was genuine progress, especially within Los Angeles County: Compton, predominately white, saw black families escape the urbanity of Los Angeles into this suburb with a charming downtown. Long Beach saw an influx of growth amongst its black population.
Republicans, however, did not let the act pass as it was originally written, exempting most forms of private homes; this dropped the potential of 3,779,000 homes to about 950,000 homes to become potentially owned by families of color.
“Even with the Rumford Act then,” author Mark Brilliant writes in The Color of America Has Changed, “the bulk of California home and apartment owners remained free to discriminate on the basis of race when selling or leasing.”
White people—despite the Republican caveat exempting them—well… They flipped. Come less than one year later, during the election of 1964, racists led by the California Real Estate Association (CREA) turned this act into the focal point of everything American and sacred. They put Proposition 14 on the ballot, one of the most vile and bluntly unconstitutional propositions every put on a California ballot.
Here’s how it read:
Neither the State nor any subdivision or agency thereof shall deny, limit or abridge, directly or indirectly, the right of any person, who is willing or desires to sell, lease or rent any part or all of his real property, to decline to sell, lease or rent such property to such person or persons as he, in his absolute discretion, chooses.
In other words, don’t tell anyone how to discriminate because they should be able to discriminate how they see fit. Even more, the CREA became extremely powerful in its messaging and held its mission of “the promotion, preservation, and manipulation of racial segregation as central—rather than incidental or residual—components of their profit generating strategies,” according to historian Robert Self.
Prop 14 passed two-to-one and, in its passage and before its dismissal as unconstitutional in 1966 by the US Supreme Court, prompted a fear that led to what was called “blockbusting” in West and North Long Beach.
Real estate agents would go into the prominently white areas, convincing them that minorities were on the move into their neighborhood following the political movements set forth by Rumford’s advocacy; this, in turn, would prompt many white families to sell their homes, often at significantly lower prices than their worth. In turn, these same realtors would sell the homes to newly affluent black families at a higher price.
It was the creation of a new form of segregation and disinvestment that was intimately tied to the passage of Prop 14 and its subsequent battle at the Supreme Court—and it prompted the creation of the Long Beach Fair Housing Foundation (FHF) in 1964, with a mission “devoted entirely to the promotion of fair and open housing practices in our community.”
Made up entirely of women, the FHF knew the fight would be anything but easy—and it had to eventually get a larger power, mainly the City of Long Beach itself, on its side.
Journalist George Weeks, writing for the Press-Telegram, noted that in 1965—at the peak of tensions between the passages of the Unruh Act, the Rumford Act, and Prop 14—fifty West Long Beach residents testified in front of the the City’s Human Relations Committee. Their accusation was not light: they accused California realtors of creating a “reservation of Negroes” on the West and North sides while “talking down the area to discourage Caucasians from viewing and buying homes [there].”
By 1966, the Navy de-commissioned its yard in Brooklyn, moving many Naval officers, including black folk, to its Long Beach yard—something the Chamber of Commerce heavily welcomed with pamphlets advocating Long Beach as a “fair city” with “abundant housing.” Now the FHF was flooded with not just local families of color seeking help, but veterans of color, therefore amping up the Foundation’s efforts.
From “double escrow”—convincing the seller who is buying is white, getting the house into escrow, but open a second escrow to a qualified black person—or “testing”—sending a white person to see if a house was available, learn it was, and send in a black person with the same qualifications to see how treatment differed—the FHF knew that such tactics were necessary from a legal angle.
A legal angle to evoke the Unruh Act in court. By 1967, Prop 14 was ruled unconstitutional and this allowed the FHF to take discriminators to court—and Long Beach led the way by successfully taking to court six cases and winning.
“No other city in California has had anything approaching this amount of court action on housing,” the Foundation reported in a Newsletter #22 in 1967.
The influence of their work in court—led by FHF co-founder and lawyer Myron Blumberg facing all-white juries and still finding success—led to the submission of their evidence to the Department of Justice in June of 1970 after the Office of the Attorney General began examining 8,000 rental and real estate agencies across the county.
On top of that, FHF had 75 volunteers investigate over 200 apartment complexes in Long Beach specifically—and what they found was remarkable:
Out of 243 buildings covered in the investigation, fully-documented evidence of racially discriminatory practices emerged from 114 buildings. These represented a total of 1,450 units; and the owners of these properties also owned an additional 875 units not included in the investigation. There was a grand total, then, of 2,325 units directly or indirectly involved in the reports sent to the Justice Department – all in the immediate Long Beach area. The last reports went to the Housing Section, Civil Rights Division on September 15, 1970. FHF was assured that prompt action would follow.
Despite overwhelming evidence, the DOJ eventually decided not to file a suit, instead sending officers to the areas to offer warnings. FHF was informed that the Department would have political officials and powerful groups like the Realty Board chastising them.
However, the efforts of the FHF continued—even leading to a landmark case in 1972 that rewarded a black couple $10K after dealing with a racist landlord , one of the largest during its time—and those efforts altered the local, regional, state, and national attention toward discriminatory housing policies.