They were called “checkers,” volunteers who posed as potential apartment renters or home buyers during the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, responding to possible cases of racial or religious discrimination in housing.
Caucasian checkers often posed as having financial and other credentials identical to or worse than those of minority persons who had been turned away earlier and in many cases they were offered mortgages or rentals that had been denied to African-Americans, Asian-Americans or Hispanics.
At times, landlords and real estate brokers threatened physical violence or even gunplay when checkers coordinated and trained by local fair housing councils revealed their true identities and attempted to convince brokers or apartment managers that the law required them to rent to persons they had previously turned away.
Those were the early years of the fair housing movement, when many landlords and brokers believed they could flout California’s 1961 Unruh Fair Housing Act and similar federal laws with impunity because no law enforcement provisions were written into the anti-discrimination measures.
In many cases, when rental or sales agents were confronted with evidence of their discriminatory behavior, they caved quickly and minorities moved in. Relationships usually remained peaceful afterward. Other times, lawsuits and large judgments ensued against property owners or fines were assessed by the state Fair Employment and Housing Commission.
At the time, most checkers did not know if their volunteer efforts produced anything material beyond getting either housing or a bit of cash for the persons they were assisting.
But now there’s evidence they were making some real changes in the life of both California and America.
A new study of information gathered by the U.S. Census over the last 120 years concludes that housing segregation is vastly reduced from the levels of 30 or 40 years ago, with California leading the way, as it often does (see the study summary at www.manhattan-institute.org/html/cr_66.htm).
Using a statistical measure called the “isolation index,” researchers from Harvard and Duke universities working at the Manhattan Institute found that the Los Angeles area is the least segregated of America’s ten largest cities. Just 22 percent of neighborhoods there have racial concentrations differing significantly from the overall composition of the entire region.
The figure is only a bit higher for the San Francisco Bay area, at 31 percent.
This may be one reason why many fair housing councils are now inactive, where once they operated in more than a dozen California cities.
The researchers, Harvard economist Edward Glaeser and Duke political scientist Jacob Vigdor, list the loose mortgage credit of the early 2000s – the very phenomenon that led to today’s housing foreclosure crisis – has having fostered desegregation. Glaeser and Vigdor insist that some loan looseness can do a lot of good.
“At a time when proposed regulations threaten to eliminate the market for lending to marginal borrowers, it is important to recognize there are costs…associated with tightening credit standards,” they said. Credit looser than it previously was, they add, caused the proportion of African-Americans living in segregated neighborhoods nationally to drop from more than 80 percent in 1960 to about 20 percent today. “All-white neighborhoods are effectively extinct,” they said.
But they observe things are still far from perfect. “The list of cities with the largest declines in segregation since 2000,” they said, “includes several caught up in the subprime housing bubble.”
The researchers had no way to measure the effects of fair housing volunteer work on this huge change, but more than half the shift occurred even before credit loosened about 10 years ago, suggesting volunteers likely had a significant impact.
And yet, the study found, “The end of segregation has not caused the end of racial inequality.” They note there are many other areas – employment, for one – where inequality remains very real.
And they concluded that vastly reduced segregation has been fostered by “reform of government practices (which in the mid-20th Century blocked many mortgage loans to minorities wanting to move to suburbia) and changes in racial attitudes that can be considered both cause and consequence of policy change.”
All this means that in spite of the pessimism that pervades much of America’s outlook today, there is little doubt California and the entire country have moved significantly toward becoming more consistent with their declared ideals, at least when it comes to housing equality.