A typical Eichler home in Sunnyvale. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)
A typical Eichler home in Sunnyvale. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

Famous for his California homes, this Jewish developer pushed to integrate the burbs

To those with a passing knowledge of architecture, the name Joseph Eichler is synonymous with the iconic mid-century modern homes that help define the suburbs in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.

Between 1949 and 1964, the Jewish developer’s eponymous company built some 11,000 tract homes for middle-class Californians. Some 800 of those are in the East Bay alone, and more in the North and South Bay, according to the architecture blog Edificionado. With their open floor plans and indoor-outdoor living designed around central atriums, “Eichlers,” as they are colloquially known, remain very much in demand today.

black and white photo of a bald man wearing glasses
Joseph Eichler in 1958 (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

Eichler’s work was also groundbreaking in another way: He was one of the first major developers to take a stand on housing discrimination.

A recent story in Dwell magazine highlighted Eichler’s little-known commitment to undoing racist housing policies. He was one of the first builders to sell a home to anyone who could afford it — regardless of their race, ethnicity or religion.

“I really do think Joe may have been motivated by discrimination against Jews back in New York,” Dave Weinstein, features editor at CA-Modern Magazine and the Eichler Network, told Dwell. “It was common not just in housing, but in society in general.”

Eichler was born in New York City in 1900, the son of German Jewish immigrants. According to a profile of the builder on the Eichler Network, he “was raised in a politically liberal family that revered Franklin Roosevelt, and grew to maturity in the culturally diverse community of New York City.”

In 1940, Eichler, his wife and two sons moved to California. There, they rented a Frank Lloyd Wright home — which inspired him to launch a career building similarly spacious, open-plan homes.

At the time, housing discrimination throughout the country was rampant — and legal. Appraisers ensured segregation through their property rating system. They ranked properties, blocks and whole neighborhoods according to a descending ABCD scheme in which the best, or A ratings, went to properties located in “homogenous” areas — ones that (in one appraiser’s words) lacked even “a single foreigner or Negro.”

A typical Eichler home in Palo Alto with some more contemporary updates. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)
A typical Eichler home in Palo Alto with some more contemporary updates. (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

Properties in neighborhoods containing Jewish residents were marked down to a B or C. If a neighborhood had black residents it was marked as D, no matter what their social class or how small a percentage of the population they made up. D areas were “redlined,” meaning that loans for purchasing or upgrading these properties were nearly impossible to get.

“Redlining” and other racist policies deepened as suburban development swelled in the post–World War II era. And yet, as Jewish wealth grew, many white Jews had the luxury of “passing,” while African Americans and other people of color did not.

By contrast, non-discriminatory housing was a cornerstone for Eichler, who launched his company in 1947. A 1964 pamphlet, “Race and Housing: An Interview With Edward P. Eichler, President, Eichler Homes, Inc.,” put it bluntly. “More than 10 years ago Eichler Homes quietly ruled out racial restriction on its sales,” it reads, noting that Asian families bought Eichlers in 1950 and the company made its first sale to a Black family in 1954. “The open occupancy policy was voluntarily adopted well before the enactment of California’s fair housing legislation.”

Reportedly, Eichler offered to buy back homes from anyone who complained about their new neighbors. He also resigned in protest from the powerful National Association of Home Builders in 1958, when the vice president of the San Francisco branch was reported to have said: “It is a generally accepted theory that minority races depreciate property values.”

Eichler responded: “I wish to state emphatically that Eichler Homes in no way practices any kind of discrimination.”

Most of the time, Eichler Homes’ non-discrimination policy was not broadcast to prospective buyers and local governments. Instead, the builders preferred to quietly sell to anyone who was qualified. Behind the scenes, however, the company pushed for widespread fair housing laws in California and for the federal government.

“They were simple merchant builders who found that doing the right thing did not hurt resale value,” Ocean Howell, a professor at the University of Oregon, writes in his paper, “The Merchant Crusaders: Eichler Homes and Fair Housing, 1949–1974.”

While housing discrimination persists across the country, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 officially made housing discrimination illegal — and the social activism of the Eichlers played a major role in helping such legislation come to pass.

“The most tiresome thing one hears about racial discrimination is the frequent advice, ‘You can’t legislate morality,’ or ‘You can’t change people with a law,’” Eichler’s son Ned told a California legislature committee in 1961. “There is a good deal of evidence, from the time of Moses, that you can do exactly that.”

A longer version of this story originally appeared on Kveller and was distributed by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Lisa Keys

JTA contributor


Content distributed by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency news service.