MLK's Birthday: Hitting Us Where We Live

Civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is pictured in an undated portrait.  Location unknown.  (AP Photo)
Civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is pictured in an undated portrait. Location unknown. (AP Photo)

The memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Jan. 15, the 86th anniversary of his birth, should hit us right where we live, and I mean that literally.

King is known for his heroic campaign to win black Americans the right to vote and to desegregate schools and transportation in the South. But he also worked hard to combat the discrimination in housing that was so deeply entrenched in the North, particularly in Chicago.

As King and President Lyndon B. Johnson both knew, in those days it was one thing to say blacks should be allowed to vote, but it it was quite another to say they should be allowed to live in the same neighborhoods as whites. American communities were rigidly segregated. In many suburban, single-family developments, buyers signed covenants saying they would not sell their property to anyone of color.

It was only after King was assassinated on April 4, 1968, that Congress passed the Fair Housing Act. The law has worked well to help prevent landlords and property owners from denying the rental or sale of existing housing on account of color, religion, sex, national origin, handicap, or familial status.

Enormous progress has been made since King was killed, and the fair-housing law was passed to bring equal opportunity to our housing markets. But many analysts and academics believe that progress has stalled, and that we are in danger of falling backwards as a nation. In many affluent, largely white communities, a full-scale effort is underway to roll back progress toward equal opportunity in housing

Legal challenges are frequently mounted to block new construction of housing that's affordable to lower-income families -- and to defeat efforts by federal officials to use the Fair Housing Act to require local governments to allow such construction. In towns like Chappaqua, New York, where Bill and Hillary Clinton live, for example, land-use- and construction-permit processes have been turned into political weapons to block development of even small quantities of affordable housing.

While opposition to affordable housing is often disguised as concern about architecture or nature or even the desire to give low-income people better options, it almost always has the same effect: keeping people of color out of predominantly white communities.

In one of his last books, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?, King wrote:

Nothing today more clearly indicates the residue of racism still lodging in our society than the responses of white America to integrated housing. Here the tides of prejudice, fear and irrationality rise to flood proportions. Suburban politicians talk eloquently against open housing while arguing in the same breath that they are not racists.

King went on to explain that problems of education, transportation, jobs, and decent living conditions were all made more difficult "because housing is so rigidly segregated." He explained:

The suburbs are white nooses around the black necks of the cities. Housing deteriorates in central cities; urban renewal has been Negro removal and has benefited big merchants and real estate interest; and suburbs expand with little regard for what happens to the rest of America.

On the anniversary of King's birth, I can't help but think how disappointed he would be if he were alive to see how hard it is to build affordable housing in affluent, mostly white communities, thereby precluding many blacks from living in places with good schools and job opportunities.

Four decades after King's death, the degree of racial inequality has barely changed, according to Patrick Sharkey, an associate professor of sociology at New York University. In his book Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress Toward Racial Equality, Sharkey describes how political decisions and social policies have led to disinvestment in black neighborhoods, persistent segregation, declining economic opportunities, and a growing link between African-American communities and the criminal-justice system.

In my book Rebuilding a Dream: America's New Urban Crisis, the Housing Cost Explosion, and How We Can Reinvent the American Dream for All, I explain why the fight over fair housing is only going to get worse as housing costs continue to rise far more quickly than incomes for most Americans, especially blacks, and how the residual impact of the foreclosure crisis continues to undermine communities of color.

This January, as we think about King again, I can only hope that Americans think about what they can do to pursue his vision of fair housing and encourage their neighbors and elected officials to stop saying "not in my backyard" when affordable housing is proposed.

Andre Shashaty is the president of the nonprofit Partnership for Sustainable Communities and has been writing about housing and urban policy for 34 years. He is the author of the book Rebuilding a Dream: America's New Urban Crisis, the Housing Cost Explosion, and How We Can Reinvent the American Dream for All. This well-researched, highly readable book explains why housing costs are out of reach for millions of Americans, how it drives inequality, why it's getting worse, and how readers can respond. It tells why the urban unrest of 50 years ago could repeat itself if Congress continues slashing programs started during war on poverty. For more information on Rebuilding a Dream, click here.