“Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly…You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.  This is the interrelated structure of reality.”

– Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.


In January 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. shocked his followers when he moved his family into a dilapidated apartment in a West Side Chicago ghetto.  During the summer of that year, he led marches into all-white neighborhood in protest of housing segregation that plagued Chicago and other cities across the nation.  King was successful in bringing to national attention the devastating effects of housing discrimination. Although tragically, Dr. King’s lasting legacy to fair housing would come after his assassination in 1968.

Just a week after his death, Congress passed the Fair Housing Act with broad bipartisan support.  The Fair Housing Act tore down our national history of public and private housing discrimination.  It aimed to remove the “high income white noose” from around the Black inner city according the then HUD Secretary George Romney.

In 1977 Congress passed the Community Reinvestment Act to encourage lending for both homes and businesses in low and moderate income communities.  While the Fair Housing Act outlawed discrimination by those selling and renting housing, the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) addressed discrimination in loans and mortgages, a practice commonly know as “redlining”.   In the early 1990’s amendments were added to the CRA which basically required mortgage lenders to devote a percentage of their lending to low and moderate income housing.

In 1993 I was looking to change my business model from remodeling to new construction.  I found a neighborhood in Norfolk called Middletowne Arch that other builders had abandoned.  The neighborhood was built in the 1940’s as housing for WWII shipyard workers.  It had become a slum and was torn down in the 1980’s.  The Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority (NRHA) planned to build an industrial park on the site, but the black community surrounding the site (including Norfolk State University) protested and NRHA agreed to develop a neighborhood of low and moderate income single family homes.

I found some private investors to finance my model home in Middletowne and quickly had qualified buyers wanting homes built.  At first I had trouble finding a local bank to lend money for the construction of the homes for which I had contracts to build.  I was young, with little experience in new construction, almost no cash on hand and building in a low to moderate income community.  I thought I might have to sell the model and give up on building homes in Middletowne.

Finally, a banker realized his bank could get credit toward the requirements of the CRA by lending me money to build homes in Middletown Arch.  In fact, the banker told me flat-out that my first construction loan would not have been approved had the bank not been given credit toward the CRA requirements.  The spigot opened slowly, but after a few buyers qualified and closed on their homes, I had no problems getting construction financing from banks.  I built over 20 homes there in the next few years.

Middletowne Arch was a very successful project for the NRHA and really launched my career as a builder.  It’s an interesting example of how laws like the Fair Housing Act and the CRA, which are crafted to help put a disparaged group on an equal footing, can benefit the an entire community.  I was not helped by the Fair Housing Act or CRA because I was black or lived in a low income neighborhood.  But I did benefit because a local government decided it was important to revive a historically black community and the federal government had enacted laws requiring banks to do so.  And a lot of folks who had jobs working for me or supplied material on the jobs in Middletowne benefited as well.  A rising tide lifts all boats.

Let’s take moment today and celebrate the vision and dreams of Dr. King, and endeavor to help all people achieve the American Dream.

1998 June 16 Redevelopment MiddleTowne Arch CAPTION NEG# NRHA#

“The Richmond” Middletowne Arch 1993 Wm S Wirt Construction