A prominent developer, who quietly integrated the suburbs of Los Angeles & San Francisco, showed that racially desegregated housing could be morally right and profitable—which built a foundation for 1960’s fair housing policies.
In 1958, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) publicly sided with racial discrimination.
Joseph “Joe” Eichler, a prolific West Coast real estate developer, fumed at a meeting of the San Francisco chapter of the NAHB. “I wish to state emphatically that Eichler Homes in no way practices any kind of discrimination,” said Joe in response to the NAHB’s public opposition to a court ruling that struck down racial discrimination in specific housing practices. As the largest and most prominent member of the association, he did not want anyone to conflate the association’s position with his own.
“It is a generally accepted theory that minority races depreciate property values,” said Richard Doyle, Executive Vice President of NAHB, explaining the association’s position on the ruling. “There may be no statistics to prove it, but as the representative of home builders, it is the theory under which I operate.”
NAHB’s position incensed Joe, who generally avoided the spotlight and never sought attention for his company’s policy to sell homes to anyone who qualified. In Joe’s opinion, gaining a reputation as a crusader for fair housing would distract from his long-term plan—to prove the profitability of integrated housing.
Unfortunately, Doyle’s opinion—that minority races depreciate property values—reflected both common beliefs and business practices. Housing and lending policies of the time actively deterred integration by denying credit to people of color and neighborhoods deemed to be high risk.
But Joe believed that integration was morally right and a good business opportunity. So, Eichler Homes did not discriminate based on race. The company began actively integrating home sales in Palo Alto as early as 1950.
By 1958, when Doyle and the NAHB came out publicly against integration, Joe felt this was an affront to his business model and the resulting economic success he experienced building over 11,000 homes in California. When NAHB refused to retract its statement, Joe came out swinging. He ultimately resigned from the NAHB and took the association to task in the press, sending letters to several Bay Area papers.
“I think that builders cannot evade the fact that what they are doing is going to have an impact on the whole community, even the nation, for a long time, and they can not simply say, ‘Well, I’m just a businessman, I’m here to make a buck,” Joe penned in his letter to the paper.
As his resignation made national news, Joe avoided alienating or shaming builders themselves, giving them the benefit of the doubt. He chose instead to reveal his economic success as a way to convince his peers to embrace desegregation. “I am sure that most [builders] are as much against discrimination as I am, but I think they are either bound by custom or fear of financial loss…my experience has in no way resulted in financial loss.”
Joe felt strongly that racial discrimination had no place in America and would not stand the test of time. Real estate leaders like Joe could create a more inclusive America—and Joe knew it. He believed that statements and actions against desegregation, like the one from NAHB, “add years to the day that I am sure will arrive when racial discrimination will be unheard of.”
Joe was a major player in the construction industry because he took advantage of the need for housing in the post-war economic boom, providing well-designed homes that middle-class families could afford. He aimed to build comfortable, modern homes at a reasonable price point, and he sought to make a profit.
Over time, Joe actively invested in racial integration as a critical component of his business model. His efforts around integration began in 1950 when Joe sold homes to Asian American families. But he did not fully embrace integration until a few years later. At first, Joe proposed a segregationist solution when NAACP leader Franklin “Frank” Williams voiced interest in purchasing an Eichler home in the early 1950s. Joe offered to build a “colored tract development” for Black families. Frank warned Joe his plan was ridiculous and perpetuated a “separate but equal” philosophy. Undeterred, Joe moved forward with the development but experienced backlash from white landowners when they discovered Joe’s purpose in buying the land. Seeing potential business opportunities evaporate before his eyes due to discrimination compelled Joe to ultimately champion integration and an open sales policy.
By 1954, Black families were moving into Eichler communities. That same year, Joe demonstrated his resolve when confronted by an angry group of white homeowners who didn’t want Black families to purchase houses in their neighborhood. Joe restated his anti-discrimination position, telling them, “I would be glad to buy anyone’s house back. We sold it too cheap anyway.” No one took him up on his offer.
These experiences set Joe’s resolve. His public admonishment of and resignation from the NAHB was the culmination of hard lessons learned and push back from those around him. He acutely knew that the real estate industry wielded strong influence and could be a force for anti-discrimination in America. And he knew that developing a model of success could prove the profitability of integration and shift the conversation around fair housing in the US.
Around the Eichler Homes office, the staff grew accustomed to Joe’s gruff demeanor. But his honesty and fierce ethical integrity—along with his courageous stance in opposition to racial discrimination—made him popular among his mostly liberal staff. Joe once plainly told employees that selling without prejudice was the policy and those who opposed it would no longer have a job at his company. He eventually won respect across the real estate community—even from his critics.
Joe testified in front of Congress in 1963 to demonstrate the profitability of his business model and provide a counterpoint to the perception that integrated racial housing lowered home values. It had an impact: members of Congress and experts referenced his model repeatedly in crucial deliberations. Joe’s steadfast belief in integration ultimately shaped the thinking of the day and played a contributing role in the design of fair housing legislation, which would affect communities for generations to come.