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Steele: Utah's rejection of fair housing

Published March 13, 2013 5:00 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Events in California 50 years ago may have some relevance for us here in Utah today.

In 1963, the California Legislature made a bold decision, passing a fair housing act that came to be known as the Rumford Act, honoring its sponsor, W. Byron Rumford. Previous fair housing acts in California had affected only publicly funded housing. For the first time, legislation prohibited certain kinds of private housing being sold or rented on the basis of race, religion, marital status or sex.

The voters of California weren't quite ready for this. In 1964, they voted overwhelmingly for Proposition 14, a state constitutional amendment allowing landlords and owners the right to base their selling decisions on any criteria they wanted, with no exceptions. Arguments for the proposition centered on freedom and choice for property owners.

Within three years, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the state amendment as being in conflict with the Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

With the benefit of a 50-year perspective, we can clearly see the promotion of Proposition 14 was not about freedom, but about racism — a kind of freedom to keep African-Americans limited to specific areas. There are few, indeed, today who would openly promote restricting where people of different races live or work.

In the waning days of the Utah legislative session this week, we have seen a similar morality play in our state Legislature, which decided to bury SB262, Housing and Employment Antidiscrimination Amendments. The bill would have provided protection against housing and employment discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, with some common-sense exceptions.

In 50 years, antidiscrimination ordinances like this will seem as basic to civil rights as protections for race, religion and sex are seen today.

Utah needs to act. The Senate could not overcome its fears this year, but some progress was made in the discussion.

I hope the good men and women in Utah's Legislature will not turn their backs in the coming year on a chance to lead, without fear, to the future.

Mark Steele is a training program manager and father of a transgender son. He lives in American Fork.