Fifty-year anniversary of Fair Housing Act hits home for Lenny McNeill

August 31, 2018

The U.S. Bank mortgage leader reflects on how its passage opened the door for his family.

In 1968, I was 11 years old and I can recall very vividly the trials and tribulations my parents endured to be able to buy a home. We went neighborhood to neighborhood in southeast San Diego, which is still a challenged neighborhood to this day. I remember my parents’ frustration of not being able to get real estate agents to take us into better neighborhoods. I didn’t understand it. My father was a lifelong Marine, highly decorated, and had fought in the Korean War. As a kid I’m thinking “My dad is fighting for our country but in his own country, he can’t buy a home.”

In one particular occasion, my dad said “We love this house and we’d like to make an offer.” However, the agent kept coming up with every reason under the sun why we couldn’t have this house in that neighborhood. Up to that point, I never really saw color. I knew I was black, but I had never experienced the recognition of difference. That was when it registered to me that I am being viewed as different, less than, not as good as.

We finally bought a house in that neighborhood. The day we moved in, our house was broken into and just about everything was stolen. Some “interesting” words were written on the wall. I remember being terrified and I couldn’t sleep. Before 1968, fair housing was anything but fair.

But then the Fair Housing Act passed and two-and-a-half years later, my parents, fearing for our safety, bought a house in Paradise Hills. The name tells you everything. That was definitely our American Dream. Being in that home helped me (and later my little sister) get to a better school and helped my parents with having a better life. It absolutely paid itself forward. 

For me, the Fair Housing Act has reminded people that housing will continue to play a major role in defining a person’s quality of life and success. Where a person lives affects everything: transportation, employment, education, shopping, etc. Fair housing is the one thing that promotes that basic principle of all men are created equal. Prior to 1968, I don’t think that statement was valid. The right of homeownership, of equal housing is something that should be offered to every American. 

And I’m glad that the law was expanded and they added protections for gender and people with disabilities. It was much needed. Can you imagine the world today without it?

Lastly, I feel that housing discrimination, like any other form of discrimination, is an obstacle that takes away choice and denies people the opportunity to fully experience and enjoy what truly is the American Dream. That in itself is a travesty. That’s the reason why my career has been affected as it has. The pain is still vividly clear in my mind. That’s why I am doing everything I can so that others don’t have to experience what I did. 

It’s still with me now when I’m representing U.S. Bank. My stories are real. They come from personal experience. And like most people, I want to make an impact. There’s a quote that sums this up for me: “If you’ve lived, but all you’ve ever done is live, then you really haven’t lived.” If I can make a difference, then I can say job well done.