Sunset over East Hollywood, Los Angeles

REAL ESTATE SUBDIVISIONS (1949): A CASE STUDY

The following are a few passages from an article for the University of Miami Law Review in 1950, when Gary I. Salzman, a former Assistant Professor of Management at the University of Miami, provided a brief summary for a real estate book published just one year earlier, entitled REAL ESTATE SUBDIVISIONS (1949) by Stanley L. McMichael.

The excerpts are of particular interest considering that McMichael’s book came on the heels of the consequential U.S. Supreme Court decision in Shelley vs Kraemer (1948), in which the court outlawed racial deed restrictions as unconstitutional (emphasis J.T.’s):

ADAM was the first to be given possession of land, subject, however, to certain restrictions…Through the reported connivance of his co-tenant, Eve, these restrictions were broken and the first eviction occurred…Adam had been given no deed to the land and not even a one dollar consideration was on record as having been paid. Indeed, the first real estate transaction was actually a conditional lease in perpetuity, contingent upon observance of certain covenants. Violation of one of these covenants led, subsequently, to a long series of litigations, which have been responsible for more clogged legal dockets than any other phase of human behavior.” – McMichael, 1949

What immediately stands out about this passage are conflated themes of property, tenancy, gender, law, and violation of law. According to the author’s logic, these themes ground a claim that “land” and “ownership of land” based on respect for “certain covenants” or agreements, are characteristics that go back to the earliest days of humanity, as fundamental things that make humans, well, human.

McMichael’s passage conveniently forgets, however, that if such characteristics are supposed to be fundamental, and even sacred to what makes us human, then the United States as an entity was in deep and perpetual violation of their sanctity since its founding, having been grounded on Indian genocide, Afro slavery, and various other forms of oppression inspired by these acts, not to mention the U.S. government’s repeated failure to honor many of the agreements or “covenants” made with descendants of these and other groups in its constitution, bills of right, and more.

Additionally, this first passage is striking for how utterly inventive it reads, like something borrowed from the mischievous L. Ron Hubbard (whose Dianetics was published a year after Subdivisions in 1950, by the way); but the fact of the matter is that zoning, or land rules, themselves were–and remain–inventive tools by which to maintain class and racial dominance. This was true according even to real estate experts themselves at the time, as the next passage indicates.

“‘The legal aspects of restrictions are given from material by Melvin B. Ogden, member of the Los Angeles Bar, stating that private control over the development of subdivisions of land by means of ‘restrictions imposed in deeds, declarations of restrictions, agreements, and similar contracts between the subdivider and lot owners, is of comparatively recent origin.‘” – Salzman, 1950

From this second quotation, it’s certainly no surprise to learn that lawyers in Los Angeles contributed significantly to instructions for realtors nationwide on the maintenance of land as [white] property, but to see one’s actual name cited on the matter is quite the homecoming.

Yet if there’s still any doubt regarding the very, very racial elements of real estate and zoning in Los Angeles as practices by which to assert white racial dominance, let the next quote clarify for readers.

“Can a subdivider of land so restrict sales of his lots that he can prevent, legally, the occupancy of such by non-Caucasions?”

Gary I. Salzman on Stanley L. McMichael’s Subdivisions (1949)

According to Salzman, this is a question McMichael covers at length in his book, with up to eight suggestions (italics J.T.’s) “made to soften the impact of the blow that racial restrictions have received.”

That is, the utterly tragic blow to those racial restrictions delivered by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948, when the court sought to honor the 14th amendment in the land of the free and home of the brave, which, don’t forget, had just returned from Europe and the Pacific after defeating fascists there, according to the prevailing narratives of the time.

However, it’s the final passage for this reading that is of most interest to yours truly.

“…the higher the quality of a subdivision, the more satisfactory it is to its creator and the more money can eventually be made out of it by both seller and buyer.” – McMichael, Subdivisions (1949)

After a trying month in March 2021 for hopes of a more equitable, politically informed public dialogue between realtors, city leadership, planning and communities today given L.A.’s racist showings in housing historically, this last passage from McMichael’s Subdivisions seems to be the one which continues to reverberate the most today for two reasons.

First, on March 18th, the L.A. City Planning Commission voted to adopt an utterly inadequate Hollywood Community Update Plan, declining to accept the Just Hollywood Coalition’s calls for language in the plan towards higher affordable housing requirements (as opposed to 10% “encouragements”) from developers, a Right to Return clause for tenants displaced by new building developments, and strong limitations on destroying current rent stabilized housing units in Hollywood, which are increasingly dwindling due to Ellis Act and “cash-for-keys” evictions in the area.

Many working-class and especially immigrant voices lent their time for these calls with the Planning Commission via Zoom during the public comment segment, but while commissioners nodded along and thanked callers for these inputs, their voices, time, and stories were largely ignored during the commission’s final deliberations.

Because the Hollywood Community Update Plan approved by the L.A. City Planning Commission also still designates or “zones” more than 4,500 acres of land in the Hollywood area for single-family homes, thereby allowing for only single family homes to be built on this land, it’s apparent that much of zoning’s racist legacy remains critically out of the sight of our public and private leadership, especially during their “leadering”!

Other than being a major impediment to creating new, multi-family affordable housing in the Hollywood area, single-family zoning is a legacy product of white supremacy in Los Angeles over the 20th century, which the above quotations show clearly, and remains as exclusionary in the 21st century for Black and immigrant workers, most of whom are still anchored in poverty due to wage inequality and other forms of discrimination across L.A. and the “Golden” state.

Secondly, on March 25th, Mitch O’Farrell’s lawless eviction of unhoused residents in Echo Park was another score for the owning classes in Los Angeles, a 21st century version of eminent domain, or seizure and destruction of the dispossessed and their time and resources, for the right of property values and their holders.

Remember simply that “the higher the quality of the subdivision,” as McMichael put it to his readers in 1949, the higher the sale and profit. By the same logic, the “safer” or “more secure” from adverse elements a property is, the greater its value. Of course, as in 1949, safety and security is dependent on whose safety and security we’re talking about.

In the case of Echo Park, violent removal of unhoused residents from the Lake area, predominantly Black and immigrant people, necessarily threatening their safety and security, is permissible under the current zoning or rules for the land. This is because their forced removal, however temporary, is still a boon for investors looking to cash in on Echo Park’s renewed “safety,” however temporary even that boon may be (it’s always temporary, isn’t it?).

As historic actions of the owning class in Los Angeles suggest, then, there are no rights quite like the rights of owners. And as both actions and inaction by so many of L.A.’s public officials in service of this class have shown–and continue to do so–the power of property over human rights in Los Angeles today is at least as strong as it was during McMichael’s day, following that tragic blow to racial property restrictions, for which the author devised his Subdivisions to navigate through, that only just so happened to entail a perverse and even “conniving” reading of “creation” stories to serve the narrow interests of the salesman.

Pray for us now, Los Angeles.

J.T.

Tell us what you think: