Fair Housing Conversations - History & Unfair Housing Practices


At its core, “fair housing” appears to be a simple enough concept. After all, the elimination of housing discrimination, promotion of economic opportunity, and development of diverse, inclusive communities makes basic common sense. 

Unfortunately, the road to fair housing in the U.S. has been a long and storied one. While there have been bumps and setbacks on that road, the progress made along the way has helped to open the doors of housing opportunity to a wider population. 

This commitment was recently solidified, when the Washington State Senate and Governor Inslee issued a proclamation recognizing the 50th anniversary of the federal Fair Housing Act, which protects people from discrimination when they are renting, buying, or securing financing for any housing. 

In Washington, a myriad of examples paint a picture of a time when discrimination was a common practice in home-buying circles. We can look to Tacoma’s first African American Mayor for proof. As the first African American of both the Tacoma City Council and the Pierce County Council, Harold Gene Moss became active in the civil-rights movement in the 1950s, prompted in part by discrimination he faced when trying to buy a house soon after his move to the city, HistoryLink reports. 

When looking for a home in Tacoma, Moss and his wife planned to buy a vacant lot from a developer. Upon meeting Moss in person, the owner told him he “wouldn’t sell for fear of alienating other prospective buyers who didn’t want to live next to an African American.” Moss then tried to buy an existing home, but was told, “We can’t sell you the house, our neighbors would never forgive us for that.”  

Moss wasn’t alone in his struggle to achieve the American Dream in a time when discrimination ran rampant. According to the University of Washington, Hugh Russell Realty company used a brochure advertising a new “Restricted Residential Community” in the 1940s. The brochure proudly displayed the “Protective Restrictions” that would govern the community, including the racial restriction which read in part: “No person other than one of the white race shall be permitted to occupy any property in said addition...” This restriction remained among the list of covenants until a few years ago, when homeowners finally mustered the votes to remove it following passage of a new state law that had been prompted by publicity surrounding the Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project.  

Covenants and Restrictions

In Seattle, Innis Arden, a neighborhood overlooking Puget Sound, was known for having racial restrictions, validated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1926, then ruled unenforceable by the same court 22 years later (and linked to the original deeds of the 500-plus homes), the Seattle Times reports. Written into the neighborhood’s bylaws by Boeing founder Bill Boeing, the 60 year-old restrictions prohibited the sale or lease of the homes to anyone who wasn’t white. “Blacks and Asians”, the restrictions said, could occupy the homes only as domestic servants.

“Though long since invalidated, the covenants still occasionally show up in documents when a home changes hands—to the surprise of some buyers and sellers,” according to the Seattle Times. “For Peris Joyner, who is a person of color, the painful language was like a punch in the gut when a neighbor first showed it to him 18 or so years ago.”

In highlighting other examples of housing discrimination in the state, the University of Washington’s Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project tells the story of Richard Ornstein, a Jewish refugee from Austria. When he contracted to purchase a home for his family in the Sand Point Country Club area of Seattle in late-1952, the property’s deed contained a neighborhood-wide restrictive covenant barring the sale or rental of the home to non-Whites and people of Jewish descent.  

“In spite of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that deemed racial restrictive covenants were unenforceable in 1948, Ornstein’s case reveals that this ruling yielded little power over the application of these restrictions on the individual level,” the University reports. “What happened to Richard Ornstein is part of a long and extensive history of racial restrictive covenants and housing segregation in Seattle. Throughout the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, restrictive covenants played a major role in dictating municipal demographics.”

Finally, it’s important to note that discrimination isn’t always limited to home purchases, nor did it all happen during the 1950s and 1960s. A 2011 bulletin from the U.S. Department of Justice highlights how the owners and operators of Summerhill Place Apartments in Renton, agreed to pay $110,000 in damages and civil penalties to settle a lawsuit alleging that the complex had discriminated against African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Indian Americans, and families with children in violation of the Fair Housing Act.

“Working families already face enough challenges finding affordable housing,” said Thomas E. Perez, assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, in the summary. “Unlawful discrimination because of their race, their national origin, or because they have children, should not be one of them.”


This year, the National Association of REALTORS® is joining with its partners and allies to commemorate the anniversary, with a key focus on:  

Understanding how we, as a nation, are constantly improving our commitment to fair housing and property rights by acknowledging our history and recognizing champions for fair housing.

Commemorating the passage of the Fair Housing Act and actions to realize the promise of the law. 

Embracing our role in the forefront of advancing fair housing and leading efforts to address community fair housing issues

As Washington REALTORS® continue to have conversations around Fair Housing, we work to understand our history and embrace our role in supporting fair housing laws. For more information on Fair Housing in Washington State, including a Legal Hotline Fair Housing video series, or to get involved with the Diversity Committee, visit: www.warealtor.org/fair-housing.

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