Civil Rights Tour: Housing - Neighbors, Inc., Fighting White Flight

5508 Illinois Avenue NW

The enactment of fair housing regulation in the District in January 1964, more than four years before Congress passed the federal Fair Housing Act, was largely thanks to Neighbors, Inc.

Founded in 1958, Neighbors, Inc.'s original mission was to persuade white homeowners to remain in the city. To do that, the group doggedly documented racist tactics that realtors used to stimulate the real estate market and further enforce residential segregation. In response to to avocacy by Neighbors, Inc. and others, the District Commissioners in December 1963 adopted a regulation barring racial discrimination by homeowners, builders, landlords, real estate agents, lenders, and advertisers. Real estate brokers who violated the regulations risked fines, imprisonment and suspension or revocation of licenses.

As the legal desegregation of housing, public accommodations, and schools took hold in DC during the 1950s, neighborhoods east of Rock Creek Park began to experience what some referred to as a "disorderly acceleration" in the number of residents moving in and out. Two decades earlier, the federal government began subsidizing the development of whites-only suburbs. After World War II (1941-45), the GI Bill and VA loans were made available almost exclusively to white families for relocating outside of the city. The legal desegregation of housing, public accommodations, and schools accelerated racial churn in the 1950s, as white people moved away and African American people claimed space that was formerly off-limits.

It was in this context that Neighbors, Inc. was founded and opened a tiny office above a florist on Illinois Avenue in Brightwood, “with a part-time secretary and a few sticks of second-hand furniture.” Co-founder Marvin Caplan later wrote, “by coincidence [the office] was close by 'speculators row' on Kennedy Street,” referring to the Realtors who preyed on white homeowners by attributing declining property values in Brightwood and other nearby neighborhoods to the arrival of African Americans. Brokers and landlords profited by persuading white people to move out of fear, and then raising the sale prices for incoming black residents. Neighbors, Inc. documented unethical methods of racial steering, and succeeded at convincing some white residents to stay. In addition, Neighbors, Inc. persuaded white newcomers to move to neighborhoods east of Rock Creek Park that Realtors wouldn’t show them.

After Brightwood and the nearby Petworth neighborhood became almost exclusively African American, Neighbors, Inc. relocated its office to Shepherd Park, where it saw greater success in its attempts at establishing a stable, racially integrated community.