Honoring MLK as a Housing-Rights Champion

Annually, on the third Monday in January, we celebrate Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day to commemorate the achievements of the legendary civil rights icon. We learned about his fight for racial equity and justice in history lessons. We all remember his notable speech, "I Have a Dream," which quickly became one of the most well-recognized addresses in the world. But how often have we honored him as a housing rights champion?

Even after the United States abolished slavery in 1865, Black/African Americans were routinely discriminated against and subjected to institutionalized racism. For instance, local governments continued to legally enforce housing segregation through zoning laws prohibiting Black people and other minorities from owning property and ultimately accumulating wealth. 

This system of denying financial and other service institutions from serving the Black population became known as redlining -- based on the red lines, federal agencies drew on maps to represent the neighborhoods they would not invest in solely based on demographics.

The 1938 Home Owners’ Loan Corporation map of Brooklyn. Credit: National Archives and Records Administration, Mapping Inequality

To protest this inequality and discrimination, Dr. King traveled to Chicago, one of the most racially segregated cities, in 1965. He co-led the Chicago Freedom Movement, which challenged employment, education, and housing discrimination. From tenant unions to city government leaders, people came together from various sectors to march through majority-white neighborhoods advocating for open housing -- the right for Black Americans to buy homes anywhere they wish.

To bring the media's attention and highlight the racial inequity and disparity in housing, Dr. King moved into an apartment along with his wife in Chicago's Lawndale neighborhood, considered a slum at the time. 

Credit: Bernard Kleina, Collection of the National Museum of African American History & Culture, Smithsonian Magazine

"We are here today because we are tired. We are tired of paying more for less. We are tired of living in rat-infested slums… We are tired of having to pay a median rent of $97 a month in Lawndale for four rooms while whites living in South Deering pay $73 a month for five rooms. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God's children," Dr. King said at the Chicago Soldier Field Stadium as part of the Chicago Open Housing Movement in 1966. 

As part of the movement, Dr. King and his companions introduced a fascinating strategy called "testing" and successfully documented discrimination in housing. Testing involved individuals who posed as buyers without any intent to purchase or rent a home.

As expected, Black people and other people of color were turned away by sellers at the door or were denied loans and couldn't take out mortgages. 

The results of the testing ignited a housing movement that garnered attention quickly, and tenants and residents of Chicago engaged in rent strikes, business boycotts and hosted youth workshops that emphasized activism. 

Finally, in 1966, The Chicago Housing Authority promised to expand public housing and implement anti-discriminatory practices. Two years later, a week after Dr. King's assassination, Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968making acts of explicit racial discrimination in housing transactions illegal. More than 50 years later, the Act is still in place, and even though there has been some progress in the field, it has yet to deliver on its promise to promote integration fully, and we are far from achieving Dr. King’s dream of housing equity and justice.

To make data on disparity more accessible and accurate, CSH published the Racial Disparities and Disproportionality Index (“RDDI”) in 2019. The tool, available to the public, looks at 16 unique systems and measures to determine whether a racial and/or ethnic group’s representation in a particular public system is proportionate to, over, or below their representation in the overall population (proportionality) and also allows for the examination of systematic differences between groups and geographies (disparities).

This year, we are launching the Redesigning Access by Centering Equity (RACE Initiative) designed to expand resources and access to developers who identify as Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). The five-year, $65 million national racial equity initiative also aims to increase BIPOC developers’ capacity to create and operate high-quality supportive housing.

In November 2021, we published the “CSH Race Equity Framework” to explain how we are working to operationalize racial equity within the organization. The framework also provides practical approaches for organizations and practitioners seeking to center racial equity in their work to end homelessness and advance housing solutions grounded in equity.

The title of this framework, “Bending the Arc Towards Equity,” was inspired by Dr. King’s quote, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice”, with the recognition that housing justice must equate to racial justice and vice versa.  

Dr. King continues to inspire us as we continue on our journey to ensure that all people, particularly those with the greatest needs, have a place in the community and the support they need to thrive. Like Dr. King, CSH believes that the path to racial equity is grounded in the voices and experiences of those disparately impacted by structural racism and will only be attained through deliberate practices, policies, and programming that produce and sustain racially equitable outcomes.

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