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M.L.K.'s Housing Legacy

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On a sunny July day in 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. took the stage at Chicago's Soldier Field before a crowd of 35,000 supporters. Building off major victories to quell racial segregation in the south, Dr. King traveled north to start a new phase in the fight for equality: improving the deplorable living conditions of the urban poor.

"We are here today because we are tired," Dr. King said. "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," he added. "Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God's children."

Those words may not be as ingrained in the American psyche as "I Have a Dream," but they had a catalyzing and tangible affect on improving housing conditions in Chicago and cities across the country.

The rally was part of the Chicago Freedom Movement -- also known as the Chicago Open Housing Movement -- a series of marches and demonstrations organized by Dr. King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Chicago was the first stop on Dr. King's "Northern Crusade," and a precursor to his Poor People's Campaign, which called for quality, affordable housing and fair wages for all people. It also served as inspiration for a generation of housing activists that followed, from Chicago's own Gale Cincotta to Baltimore's Jim Rouse, who founded Enterprise Community Partners in 1982.

On the day of the rally, Dr. King brought a list of demands to Chicago City Hall, calling on local politicians and business leaders to end discriminatory lending, clean up slums, rehabilitate decrepit public housing and increase the supply of low-cost housing. The list also included demands to improve access to jobs, quality education and public transportation in low-income neighborhoods.

Within weeks, the movement began to show real results. In August 1966, activists and city officials reached a "summit agreement," through which the local housing authority promised to build more public housing and the Mortgage Bankers Association agreed to enact certain anti-discrimination rules.

But Dr. King's true housing legacy would come years later. In April 1968, just one week after Dr. King's tragic assassination, President Lyndon Johnson signed Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 -- commonly known as the Fair Housing Act -- which prohibited discrimination in the sale and rental of housing. Dr. King had long advocated for such a ban, a fact President Johnson made clear in his remarks after signing the law.

Nearly half a century later, the Fair Housing Act remains the linchpin of the fight for equitable housing, but we're still a long way from realizing Dr. King's vision. Black and Hispanic families are still twice as likely to live in poverty and continue to fall victim to discriminatory housing practices. For example, the typical black or Hispanic renter seeking housing is shown 11 percent fewer apartments than a white renter with similar qualifications, according to a recent HUD survey.

Last summer, HUD took the important step of proposing significant improvements to its fair housing rules, including a new data-driven process for addressing complaints. We applaud the agency's efforts to strike the right balance between revitalizing distressed low-income neighborhoods to create new opportunities for residents, and providing affordable housing options in higher-opportunity neighborhoods.

After signing the Chicago summit agreement, Dr. King called it "the first step in a thousand-mile journey." As we reflect on Dr. King's legacy, we should celebrate the many steps we've taken since that day, including the millions of low-income families that now have quality, affordable homes in diverse communities. But we should also acknowledge the miles left to travel before our journey is complete.