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Fair Housing Act

Half a century ago, Nevada took an important step in the right direction with a new law: the Fair Housing Act of 1971.

Congress had passed a similar bill in 1968, and Nevada needed to change its law to get into line with federal law. The guiding force behind Nevada’s effort was Woodrow Wilson. He came to Nevada to work at the Basic Magnesium plant during World War II. One day he tried to buy a house in the Huntridge development, where I grew up. He had the money, but no one would accept it. He had to live in West Las Vegas. There he helped start Westside Federal Credit Union, which made housing loans—again, though, only in West Las Vegas. In 1966, he became the first African American elected to the state legislature.

As Wilson said in an oral history, “When you have open housing and people living all over a community, then you eliminate the segregated schools.” In fact, segregated schools had been unconstitutional in Nevada since 1872, but housing discrimination meant the schools were effectively separate. He tried to pass the bill in 1969, but the State Senate Finance Committee wouldn’t give the funding to enforce it. So he said the bill might as well be killed and it was.

It was different in 1971. Wilson lobbied hard. So did the new governor. Mike O’Callaghan had been active in the civil rights movement in southern Nevada as a citizen, as state welfare director, and as a federal employee in the War on Poverty. State officials had gotten the word: If they weren’t in compliance with federal fair housing legislation, they would be in trouble. There was community support from groups ranging from the NAACP to religious organizations. They reported getting backing from both sides of the aisle, which was important: the legislature was divided, with a small republican majority in the Assembly and a small Democratic majority in the State Senate—they HAD to work together, and they did. Among those who came out early were Wilson and Democrats Eileen Brookman, Norman Ty Hilbrecht, and some fellow named Dick Bryan.

Wilson recalled that he got all but a couple of his assembly colleagues to sign onto the bill, then worked in the state senate to get it passed there. More importantly, the state appropriated funds for a small staff to make sure the rules were followed. The legislation was designed to stop unreasonable deposits and fees, and end discriminating by lenders and the real estate industry. A few opponents got together on amendments designed to weaken the bill, but Wilson and his allies were able to get them removed from the final version that the assembly sent to the senate.

When it got to the senate, there was an interesting twist. The Senate Finance Committee had to consider it, since implementing the law would cost money. Longtime State Senator Jim Gibson cast the key vote for it. He also added language from the federal fair housing law passed in 1968 to make sure all of the bill’s provisions would be clear and enforced. The bill passed and O’Callaghan signed it into law. I was proud to be one of the legislators who voted for it.