It’s National Fair Housing Month — and Chicago Played a Big Part

In 1968, the federal government passed the Fair Housing Act, because it believed that equal access to housing is a human right. Until then, it was legal for landlords to refuse to rent their property to people based on, well, anything. And they often did refuse, based on applicants’ race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. In fact, some might say it was the unwritten job of the real estate agent to discourage people of color from moving into traditionally white neighborhoods.


The efforts of many people and groups were required to make fair housing legislation a reality, and some of them took place in Chicago. Baird & Warner is Chicago’s largest and oldest family-owned real estate company, and at that time, it was the largest real estate company of any kind in Chicago. And John W. Baird, the company’s president, became one of the few players in real estate to push for fair housing rights at the local, state, and federal levels.


To do it, he had to go against his peers and other civic leaders who thought making discrimination against buyers and renters based on race or religion illegal would take away sellers’ and landlords’ civil rights. He testified before the Chicago City Council in 1962, appealing to their sense of civic duty by advocating for the passage of an open occupancy law that would “facilitate the renewal of Chicago.” In 1963, the City Council passed the Chicago Fair Housing Ordinance which prohibited brokers from engaging in such discrimination, but not sellers and landlords.


When the National Association of Real Estate Boards urged Congress to reject the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Baird wrote to Illinois State Senate senators Everett J. Dickson and Paul Douglas to tell them he “emphatically did not endorse” its position. And in 1965, he resigned from the Chicago Real Estate Board because it refused to support a fair housing law for the city. Years later in an interview, he would say simply, “it was the right thing to do.” Here’s Baird talking about the history.


That same year, Chicago became a national focal point for fair housing activism and civil rights  when the Chicago Freedom Movement invited Martin Luther King, Jr. to come to Chicago. The coalition of 44 civil rights organizations was leading a campaign to end systematic racial discrimination that “kept blacks in ghettos, overcrowded schools, and low-paying jobs,” writes WTTW. King made news when he and his family moved to a ghetto apartment in the West Side’s North Lawndale neighborhood. He pushed for open housing and other changes for 19 months in Chicago.


In 1968 the Chicago Fair Housing Ordinance was amended to include sellers and renters, and on April 11 of that year, President Lyndon Johnson approved the Fair Housing Act — making it illegal to refuse to sell or rent a dwelling to anyone based on race, color, disability, or religion (today, sex, familial status, or national origin, as well) — one week after Martin Luther King’s assassination.