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The Seattle Open Housing Campaign, 1959-1968


Seattle's African American population increased dramatically between 1940 and 1960, making the community the city's largest minority group. Like other minorities, African Americans experienced discrimination in many ways, including in housing. Until 1968, it was legal to discriminate in Seattle against minorities when renting or selling real estate. Establishing fair and open housing in Seattle proved to be a long and difficult task.

The enforcement of restrictive covenants was one method used to keep black families out of white neighborhoods. These covenants are deed restrictions that apply to a group of homes or lots in a specific development or 'subdivision.' An example of a restriction based on race is: "No person or persons of Asiatic, African or Negro blood, lineage, or extraction shall be permitted to occupy a portion of said property." This and other acts of discrimination, such as realtors agreeing not to show houses to people of color, and red-lining, where banks denied credit to minorities, largely confined black residents to the Central Area in Seattle.

One avenue taken in fighting housing discrimination was the attempt to change the law to make it illegal to discriminate when selling or renting. In December 1961, the Seattle City Council held a public hearing in response to a request from the Seattle branch of the NAACP for passage of an ordinance prohibiting discrimination in housing. Many groups spoke in favor of the ordinance; representatives of the Seattle Real Estate Board and the Seattle Apartment Operators' Association spoke against legislation.

The Mayor's Citizen's Advisory Committee on Minority Housing, appointed in July 1962, recommended in December 1962 that "a city ordinance prohibiting discrimination in the sale or rental of housing accommodations on the basis of race, creed, color or national origin is an essential tool..." The Mayor and City Council declined to act on the Committee's recommendations.

In July 1963 a protest march led to a sit-in at the Mayor's office to bring attention to the inaction on open housing legislation. The Seattle Human Rights Commission was created in response to this and other protests. The Commission drafted an open housing ordinance before the end of the year and referred it to City Council. The Council held public hearings on the issue but declined to pass the ordinance as proposed by the Commission. Instead, Council placed the issue on the ballot for a March 1964 vote. Opponents of the issue called it "forced housing" legislation, and claimed it violated their property rights. Voters turned down the open housing ordinance on March 10, 1964, by a vote of 115,627 to 54,448.

Between 1963 and 1968, there were voluntary efforts to establish fair housing practices. Organizations such as the Fair Housing Listing Service and Operation Equality worked to match buyers with sellers. National legislation such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination in public places and in schools, helped change people's attitudes.

Finally, on April 19, 1968, three weeks after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., an open housing ordinance was passed unanimously by the City Council, with an emergency clause to make it effective immediately. It was signed by the Mayor the same day.

The open housing legislation was broadened in 1975 to make it illegal to discriminate based on sex, marital status, sexual orientation and political ideology, and in 1979 age and parental status were added. In 1986, creed and disability were added to the law and in 1999 gender identity was added.