Gene Slater has spent a career helping public agencies build affordable housing and community spaces — think the small, local shops in the Ferry Building in San Francisco and financing for tens of thousands of affordable apartments across the country.
But as a late-career project, Slater turned his eye to the real estate industry and its role in creating segregated neighborhoods that persist today. Racial housing covenants, long unenforceable, are still being overturned in Bay Area cities.
His new book, “Freedom to Discriminate: How Realtors Conspired to Segregate Housing and Divide America,” traces the roots of the conservative movement’s embrace of freedom to California Realtors’ successful 1964 campaign for Proposition 14. The central message of the proposition — that property owners should have the freedom to rent or sell to anyone they chose, even if it meant discriminating against Black, Asian and Hispanic families — was promoted by Realtors to counter support for housing equality during the civil rights movement.
Despite the swell of support for civil rights in the early 1960s, Prop 14 won 65% of the vote, with a higher margin among White voters. Though the measure was later found unconstitutional, Slater says that its use of freedom to defend a controversial policy position remains common today among conservatives, from vaccine refusal to gun rights.
“It’s a catch-all,” Slater said. “It’s so much the single, unifying message of the Republican party.”
The conversation with Slater has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Q: What was Prop. 14 and why do you think it was a revolutionary proposal?
A: It was a radical proposal and the rhetoric from it had an enormous influence.
It said neither the state or any subdivision shall ever limit the discretion of any property owner to rent or sell their house. Basically, it permanently authorized residential discrimination forever in California. This was to prevent any city like San Francisco or Berkeley or anywhere else from having its own local (anti-discrimination housing) laws.
The question was for Realtors, how would they campaign for this proposition at the height of support for civil rights in America? They needed an argument that would not seem racial at all and would appeal to the vast majority of White Californians, who would view this not as an issue about race, but about some kind of rights.
They took the idea of American freedom that Martin Luther King had promoted — freedom was based on freedom for everybody.
(Fresno Realtor) Spike Wilson came up with a campaign based on the idea that the Realtors were not racially motivated at all. This had nothing to do with race, but was rather about American values.
Realtors were instructed: don’t talk about race, only talk about freedom. Make this about government. This is the first step in government taking away your rights.
Q: How was that unusual at that time?
A: The realtors did a couple of things that were crucial. They created, in many ways, the first colorblind vocabulary of freedom. They say, We are not racially motivated at all. We simply believe in freedom of choice for each property owner.
They talked about freedom of conscience and they linked this to freedom of religion. They said, To choose is to discriminate. That’s what freedom of choice means. Freedom of choice is what this campaign was about.
Q: What role did Berkeley play in the housing segregation movement in the early 20th century?
A: Berkeley developer Duncan McDuffie was inspired by the idea of creating high-end residential subdivisions — environmentally beautiful, with curving streets and trees on the hillsides. (But) how do you control what’s going to happen to that subdivision after you sold off the first 50 lots? People could build an apartment house and build a bar. People could build anything.
There was an idea created about 20 years before — residential covenants that each buyer would sign and it would limit what they could do.
McDuffie added to this a racial covenant that no non-Caucasian, other than a servant, could ever live in the neighborhood for the next 30 years. This racial covenant was really more of a marketing tool. Very few African-Americans or Japanese-Americans in the Bay Area at the time could have afforded the highest-end lots. It was sort of selling social cachet.
McDuffie led the effort for the first single-family zoning United States, which was in Berkeley.
Q: How does Prop. 14 shape our neighborhoods today?
A: The battle really changed. The federal Fair Housing Act passed (in 1968), but it had been weakened both by opponents and supporters by the shadow of Prop 14.
It would take strong government action to overcome the legacy of all the realtors put in place — single family zoning used to limit where races live, the fragmented suburbs that were created to support racial covenants (still) divide American suburbs today.
Position: Chairman, CSG Advisors in San Francisco, a financial advisory firm for public agencies developing affordable housing. Author, “Freedom to Discriminate: How Realtors Conspired to Segregate Housing and Divide America”
Home: Born in Brooklyn, NY, lives in Foster City
Education: Columbia University, B.A., MIT, Master of City Planning
Family: Wife and two grown sons, both teachers in the Bay Area
Five Things about Gene Slater
- He attended Stuyvesant High School in New York City, a prestigious public school whose alumni have won Noble Prizes and Academy Awards.
- While in high school, he joined the debate team and became politically active. Other members of the team included future congressman Jerry Nadler and political consultant Dick Morris. “I hoped some day to become a U.S. senator,” Slater said.
- Slater re-connected with his high school friend Morris when Morris was consulting on Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign. Slater helped write and edit Clinton’s convention acceptance speech.
- During the financial crisis of 2009, Slater and his firm helped the Treasury Department create a way to pump financing into local communities to support vulnerable homeowners and renters.
- Slater’s book grew out of his studies for a master’s degree at Stanford.
Credit: Source link