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A Brief History of Housing Discrimination in Fullerton and North Orange County

Recently, I wrote a column about Doss v. Bernal (1943), an important historic housing discrimination case in Fullerton involving the Bernal family. Mexican American families like the Bernals weren’t the only ones who faced housing discrimination in Fullerton, however. Other families in Fullerton also faced the same types of housing discrimination that Mexican Americans did.

According to Rusty Kennedy, who was the director of the Orange County Human Relations Commission for many years, “Many of the deeds in Orange County included prohibitions against Blacks, Latinx, Asians and Native Americans, permitting them only if they were gardeners, servants, or nannies…sad but true.”

Growing up in Fullerton, Rusty first became involved with social issues due in part to his parents’ social justice activism. When he was a little kid, his parents would hold meetings at their house on social justice issues such as housing discrimination, racism, and farmworker rights. Rusty wrote via email, “I would sit around the back of these meetings and was fascinated to hear what they spoke of. Although I don’t remember, when I was a toddler, my mom went door-to-door in our Golden Hills neighborhood to get petitions signed to advocate the sale of a house up the street to the first Chinese American family in Fullerton, the Chins. At that time in the ‘50s, Blacks, Latinx, and Asians all faced discrimination in housing.”

Kennedy explained that one of the legacies of white privilege that was enjoyed by many in the 1950s and ‘60s was the subsidized loans from the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) that enabled “Whites Only” to buy houses. Blacks, Latinx, Asians, and Native Americans were systematically denied housing in white neighborhoods, and denied FHA subsidized loans, creating a legacy of renting, while whites were subsidized by the U.S. government in their purchases of housing, which created a legacy of owning and accumulating equity and wealth.

“My parents used that equity to enable all five of their children to buy homes, effectively growing the wealth gap between us and African Americans, Latinx, and Native Americans who paid higher and higher rents and accumulated no equity,” Kennedy said. “My wife and I in turn were able to use our equity to enable all 3 of our kids to purchase homes, increasing that wealth gap.”

In order to learn about the stories and experiences of African Americans living in north Orange County in the past, I have been reading through the 2010 book, A Different Shade of Orange: Voices of Orange County, California Black Pioneers by Robert A. Johnson and Charlene M. Riggins (e-mail coph@fullerton.edu to order a copy). Johnson and Riggins wanted to focus on the voices of those who represent the 2% African American population in Orange County. Consisting of 26 local oral histories, A Different Shade of Orange explores the challenges faced by African Americans in their day-to-day lives in a county transitioning from rural to suburban.

According to Mary Owens, an African American woman who moved to Fullerton from Los Angeles when she was a child, married into the famous Owens family of athletes, and eventually founded the Leon Owens Foundation to help high school and college students after her husband, Leon Owens, passed away, “The problem with Fullerton was housing. That was the real problem.”

According to the authors of the book, “Not only were Black people prevented from living in ‘sundown towns’ like Brea and Orange and prevented from purchasing property in areas that had racial covenants like the land that Richard Nixon’s father bought in Yorba Linda, it was almost impossible to find any apartment to rent or property to buy outside of the Truslow area” (185).

For much of the 20th century, non-whites were forced to rent or purchase homes south of the railroad tracks, like in the Truslow neighborhood.

The term “sundown towns” refers to towns where it was illegal for Black people to be there after sundown. For a lot of years, with the exception of the Truslow neighborhood, Fullerton was basically a sundown town. The historical reality of sundown towns is comprehensively documented in James Lowen’s 2005 book, Sundown Towns.

There were widespread racist civic and housing policies throughout Orange County, including Fullerton. In this city, the only neighborhood where minorities were allowed to rent or own homes was on the south side of the train tracks. Mary Owens recalled in A Different Shade of Orange, “At first, we had gone to look for apartments, and they would not rent to us. Leon [her husband] said, ‘You know, we’re going to have to buy a house here.’ That’s what happened. We bought a house, this house [on Truslow].”

Warren Bussey, an African American man who moved to Fullerton during the early 1950s, told a similar story. “We were only living on two blocks…Living in California at that time, it was more prejudiced than it was in Texas,” Bussey said.

By the 1970s, there were no longer sundown towns. As jobs opened up and fair housing laws were created and enforced, more Black families moved into homes and apartments throughout Orange County. However, this development occurred in spite of the fact that discrimination in buying and renting was still the rule and not the exception. Those African Americans who wanted to live in the Orange County suburbs could find housing if they had the patience and the resources to keep trying and not give up when lied to or told they were not wanted. Often times, the move into a house or apartment required support from both Black people and White people as well as fair-housing organizations.

The OC Human Relations Commission was created in 1971 by advocates for civil rights who were upset with police brutality against Latinos, housing discrimination, lack of affordable health care, and discrimination in education. This official County Commission was seen as a vehicle for eliminating prejudice, intolerance, and discrimination based on race, religion, ethnicity, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, marital status, socio-economic status, and age.

“Initially housing discrimination was acted on with individual cases being set up and litigation, or the threat of litigation reversing it,” wrote Rusty Kennedy via email. “The Fair Housing Council was the non-profit organization that conducted that case-by-case approach. Ultimately, it became evident that a more insidious form of discrimination was being practiced and a more sophisticated approach would be required to undermine it.”

Interestingly enough, my grandpa, Lawrence Little, served as chairman of the Anaheim Fair Housing Council in 1964. “When an African American was rejected from renting an apartment, they were usually told it was already rented, so we would send a White person out later to the same apartment building and, usually, they were able to rent that apartment,” my grandpa said. “That told us that they were being discriminated against, which meant we had a case. We would write and threaten the owners with a lawsuit unless they rented to the African American people.”

City Councils and the predominantly White middle-class residents who elected them opposed the construction of affordable housing, causing low-income individuals to commute from neighboring counties. The OC Human Relations Commission, Fair Housing Council, League of Women Voters, Legal Aid Society and other housing advocates formed the Housing Coalition to advocate for the development of Affordable Housing.

Policies were passed in some cities and the County to require inclusion of a percentage of affordable housing in all new developments. Density bonuses were given to make it more profitable for developers to build low-cost housing. State legislation was passed, requiring that all cities develop Housing Elements in their zoning and master plans to include adequate affordable housing to meet the Regional Housing Needs Assessment goals for low-cost housing.

Rusty Kennedy said, “Lawsuits were initiated against cities such as Newport Beach, Santa Ana, Irvine, and others that refused to include affordable housing in their plans. The settlements were then used to start non-profit affordable housing organizations that continue today, such as the Civic Center Housing Corporation, the OC Community Housing Corporation, and Irvine Housing Opportunities. These non-profits and the litigation settlements that created them were conceived by Fullerton’s Ralph Kennedy [Rusty Kennedy’s father], who founded the Fullerton Observer.”

When asked what he would consider the OC Human Relations Commission’s biggest victory against discrimination, Rusty Kennedy pointed to the Hate Crime Network, which was started in 1991. It was a unique collaboration that brought traditionally hostile parties together around a shared mission to eliminate hate crime. He explained that representatives from African American, Latinx, Asian, LGBTQ, Jewish, and Muslim communities, as well as the police, came together at the invitation of the Commission. Based on trusting relationships developed with all these communities, the Commission started a collaboration that continues today, building relationships between police and these diverse communities.

“We had to overcome intergroup animosities as well, some groups holding intolerant views of others,” Kennedy said. “But we brought them together to document hate crime, collaborate to get effective reporting of hate crime, and educate each community and the police about the special nature of hate crime.  Even as some say that it is divisive to report hate crime as it makes Orange County look bad, the Hate Crime Network facilitated by OC Human Relations continues to stand up for victims of hate and put their stories on the front pages of the media.”

It’s important to understand what happened in history so that we don’t repeat the same mistakes in the present.

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6 replies »

  1. There is a lot to Fullerton an just residing in Fullerton was just an under lining of the city pool on Valencia was segregated the schools you couldn’t speak Spanish at Fullerton high school I know my mom an grandma came from it

  2. We still have this issue. I don’t understand why this writer makes the statement to the affect we don’t want to make these mistakes again. It also reveals his/her own discrimination. I am disabled. I have a disabling mental health issue. If you think we don’t face similar discrimination, you have forgotten that this is the city in which a homeless, mentally-ill man was beaten to death for no other reason than being in a ” protected” class. It would be nice to stop seeing only discrimination that affects your personal.agenda and include all protected classes. We are far from anything close to being free from painful discrimination regarding housing or anything else when it comes to the disabled and homeless. I made comment about the horrible conditions of the shelters and spreading of COVID as someone said get COVID and die! I raised my family here, got my degree and became disabled. I have been treated horribly. I am ashamed of this city and I chose to move here over 30 years ago!

  3. It wasn’t equity that bought those houses for those children, it was blood money. The real estate agents wanting to sell a house to the Chin family petitioned the neighbors to allow a Chinese family to buy a house in this neighborhood, not social justice warriors of the fifties and sixties.

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