Real (Estate) Talk: Dr. King's Most Challenging Struggle Was Housing and Where It Stands Today

As featured in my monthly Inman News column on race and real estate.

"Location, location, location" signals the crème de la crème of real estate. On its surface, "location, location, location" seems to be a benign phrase. Unfortunately, for much of the 1900s, there had not always been equal opportunities to buy, rent, sell, and enjoy prime properties if you were not white and Gentile. 

Example of a deed restriction that barred everyone that was not white or Gentile from real estate. Source:

Dr.  King's Most Challenging Struggle

To give deeper insight, did you know that: 

"the struggle to create truly equal access to housing and to neighborhoods was one of the most complex and challenging of all the difficult struggles that King faced"? 

--From "Perspectives on Fair Housing", p. 53

Did you catch that? 

The struggle to enact fair housing laws -- not even considering their enforcement -- was more difficult than the desegregation of buses, lunch counters, stores, and schools along with the push for equal voting rights. 

Some lawmakers attested that "these people deserved to live the American dream just like their white counterparts."

--From "Perspectives on Fair Housing", p. 37

Yet, "Civil rights legislation that included antidiscrimination provisions in housing had failed repeatedly even as bills regarding voting rights and segregation in public accommodations had passed". 

--From "Perspectives on Fair Housing", p. 55

From where did such strong and organized opposition come regarding the American dream of homeownership and fair housing? 

"It has long been the contention of Realtors that the 'fair housing' laws... is a dangerous withdrawal of human rights..." 

-- From "Human Rights and the Realtor" by NAR leadership 

NAR apologized almost sixty years later in 2020.

That speaks volumes regarding the historic sentiments towards what it took (and still takes) for the full benefits of "location, location, location" to be legally accessible to all and why fifty-some years later there is still reticence.

Lest we forget and to those points, the passage of the Federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 literally was predicated on Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s appalling assassination. 

Within hours of Dr. King's horrific assassination, President Lyndon Johnson and civil rights leaders (see picture) agreed to refocus efforts on the highly contentious civil rights bill that included more comprehensive federal fair housing protections to grant basic access and opportunity to Black and other People of Color (along with other now protected classes). 

The Civil Rights Act of 1968, including the Fair Housing Act, finally passed the next week after years of meetings, marches, delays, filibusters, and revisions. "President Johnson viewed the Act as a fitting memorial to the man's life work, and wished to have the Act passed prior to Dr. King's funeral in Atlanta". Within hours of Dr. King's assassination, Standing from L-R: Roy Wilkins, Sec. Robert Weaver, unknown, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, Judge Leon Higginbotham, Sen. Clarence Mitchell III, Dorothy Height, Mayor Walter Washington, Warren Christopher, Whitney Young, unknown, Bayard Rustin, Rev. Leon Sullivan, unknown, unknown, and unknown.  Seated from L-R:  Justice Thurgood Marshall, President Lyndon B. Johnson, and Clarence Mitchell, Jr.

Real talk, “location, location, location” has been a loaded statement that over the last 100+ years has meant prime property was on a sliding scale of access, from:

-- at times, excluding Black and other People of Color from homeownership through racially restrictive covenants (by the way, are still on the books in all but 8 states with Illinois being the latest to allow homeowners to have such language struck from deeds)

— to intentionally undervaluing or outright ignoring and abandoning Black and other communities of Color 

— to even displacement of historic communities of Color from what is now prime, profitable real estate through race-based mob violencegentrification, and eminent domain thief.

The Struggle for "Location, Location, Location" Today

Case in point, Bruce's Beach (prime beachfront property at Manhattan Beach, California) was stolen from the lawful Black owners due to eminent domain. After over 97 years (in September 2021), this land was finally returned to the Black family but had that land not been stolen "almost certainly would have made heirs millionaires." (As a note, in January 2023, the heirs are in talks to sell the property to LA county for $20 Million. We as real estate pros know that valuation is likely only a fraction of the worth since municipalities often do not pay top dollar).

In other instances, the desirability of a location has meant pushing out residents of Color. For example, “urban renewal” while improving “green amenities can cause environmental gentrification in these communities if they are not accompanied by robust support for affordable housing.”

Such language that describes and frames the “desirability” of a location has been so defining and damning that currently “Fannie Mae is urging appraisers to stop using loaded language such as “crime-ridden area” and “integrated community” when valuing homes.”

In short, “location, location, location” is a phrase that historically has signaled prime property but also a denial of Black and other People of Color access and opportunity to that prime real estate. Despite the passage of the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968 that horrifically required Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s bloodshed, shockingly there are still instances today where this denial of top-tier real estate is true.

Real talk, as real estate pros, it is vital that we understand the historical context and the lasting implication of "location, location, location", especially if it is wielded to exclude, devalue or separate. 

To help us on our journey, in this video, hear from a Black resident (retired school teacher and author, Mrs. Mara Johnson) that recalls her experiences before the Fair Housing Act of 1968 along with real estate pros, Amy McCoy and Kim Scott that discuss the struggles of fair housing today.  

As we start 2022, let's resolve to take action on behalf of our clients according to the following words from Demetria McCain (HUD Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity), who shared: 

Signed into law one week following the 1968 assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Fair Housing Act remains critical in 2022 as the scourge of housing discrimination continues. Housing discrimination based on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex (including gender identity and sexual orientation), disability, or familial status has no place in our country. 

It is because of the courageous efforts of Dr. King and others that HUD’s use of the Fair Housing Act over these years has held fair housing violators accountable. That work, through HUD and our fair housing partners, continues today. 

If you think your rights (or that of your clients') have been violated, you should file a fair housing complaint with HUD. You can file a complaint by calling HUD at 1-800-669-9777 or visiting How to File a Complaint on HUD’s website: 

Materials and assistance are available for persons with limited English proficiency. Individuals who are deaf or hard of hearing may contact the Department using the Federal Relay Service at 1-800-877-8339. 

You should file a complaint with HUD as soon as possible. HUD may be unable to help you if your complaint is filed more than one year after the last discriminatory act. A list of the state and local fair housing agencies funded by HUD is available on HUD’s website here:

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