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The destructive legacy of racist US housing policy

by Richard Rothstein

A pattern has emerged—in Oakland, New York, Cleveland, Baltimore, the St Louis suburb of Ferguson, and beyond. Police claiming to feel threatened kill unarmed black men. Protests follow, sometimes including violence. The Department of Justice finds a pattern and practice of racially-biased policing. The city agrees to train officers not to use excessive force, encourage sensitivity, prohibit racial profiling. These reforms are all necessary and important, but ignore an obvious reality that the protests are not really (or primarily) about policing.

In racially isolated neighbourhoods where jobs are few and transportation to job-rich areas is absent, where poverty rates are high and educational levels are low, where petty misbehaviour and more serious crime abound, young men and cops develop the worst expectations of each other, leading to predictable confrontations.

In 1968, following more than 100 urban riots nationwide, almost all in response to police brutality or killing by police, a presidential commission concluded that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal” and that, “segregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans.”

The Kerner Commission added that “what white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

“White society” was a euphemism. It was government—federal, state, local—whose explicitly racial laws, policies, and regulations ensured that black Americans would live separately. St Louis and Baltimore, the bookmarks of our recent incidents, illustrate this.

A hundred years ago, both cities adopted ordinances prohibiting African-Americans from moving to blocks where whites predominated. After the Supreme Court banned such rules in 1917, St Louis’s planning board preserved the policy.

In neighbourhoods where deeds prohibited sales to African-Americans, the board prohibited anything but single family homes. Where neighbourhoods had black families, it permitted multifamily structures, saloons, and factories. It changed zoning designations when necessary to enforce racial boundaries.

Baltimore’s official ’Committee on Segregation’ coordinated building and health inspectors’ efforts to condemn black residences found in white neighbourhoods. The committee also organised neighbourhood associations to adopt pacts pledging white homeowners never to sell to black purchasers.

The federal government led nationwide efforts to enforce segregation. In the 1930s, many urban neighbourhoods were modestly integrated when both European immigrants and African-Americans walked to factory jobs. Cities razed such neighbourhoods to construct federally-financed segregated public housing—in St Louis, for example, for blacks on the north side, for whites farther south.

 

’Poison pill’

During the Second World War, the government built segregated housing for defence workers. In cities with previously few black residents, this imposed rigid segregation on burgeoning black populations.

Faced with post-war housing shortages, President Harry Truman proposed expanding public housing. Conservative Republicans, rejecting government participation in private markets, introduced a ’poison pill’ amendment requiring that public housing be integrated. They knew that if the amendment passed, Southern Democrats would oppose any public housing, defeating the program.

Northern liberal Democrats like Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota campaigned against the integration amendment, uniting with their Southern colleagues to defeat it, and the 1949 Housing Act funded segregated housing.

When civilian housing construction recovered, the government promoted suburbanisation. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) guaranteed bank loans to builders on condition that no homes be sold to African-Americans. The FHA even provided model deed language barring re-sales to non-whites.

Such subdivisions blossomed in virtually every metropolitan area. Best known is Levittown in New York State —17,000 homes for veterans, sold initially for about twice national median family income (less than US$125,000 in today’s dollars). Affordable to working class families of any race, federal policy restricted them to whites.

As suburbanisation accelerated, whites left segregated public housing, lured to racially exclusive communities by FHA or GI bill mortgages. Soon, white projects had vacancies while black waiting lists were long. Housing authorities then opened all projects to African-Americans. When industry also left inner cities and black workers couldn’t get to good suburban jobs, ghetto impoverishment grew.

The FHA refused to insure mortgages in black neighbourhoods as well—“redlining” neighbourhoods to indicate they were uncreditworthy because African-Americans lived in (or even near) them.

Unable to get mortgages and restricted to overcrowded neighbourhoods where housing was in short supply, African-Americans paid rents considerably higher than those for similar dwellings in white neighbourhoods, or bought houses on installment plans with no equity rights.

Higher housing costs forced black families to double-up, sometimes subdividing single-family homes. City services declined where black populations increased and neighbourhoods turned into slums. If they were close to downtown businesses, federal, state, and local governments collaborated in ’slum clearance’ programs that relocated black residents to outlying areas.

 

’De jure’ segregation

That’s how the formerly all-white Ferguson evolved. Government cleared the St Louis slums it had created to construct the city’s trademark Gateway Arch, university expansion, and freeway interchanges that brought white suburbanites to downtown jobs.

Some displaced residents received government vouchers to subsidize rents in outlying areas, but with no requirement that landlords must accept them. When only landlords in borderline areas took vouchers, new ghettos like Ferguson were created.

Houses in places like Levittown cost more than seven times national median income. In 1968, we adopted a Fair Housing Act, telling African-Americans they were free to move to such suburbs. A few have, but the homes are now unaffordable to most black working families whose grandparents could have found housing there 60 years ago.

Whites who bought such houses gained, over the last 65 years, hundreds of thousands of dollars in equity appreciation, wealth they used to send children to college or to provide for their own retirements.

Housing equity is Americans’ most important source of wealth. Average black family income is now about 60 per cent of white family income, but black household wealth is only about 5 per cent of white household wealth. This disparity is almost entirely attributable to federal policy that prohibited black families from accumulating equity during the suburban boom and thus from bequeathing that wealth to children, as whites have done.

We don’t have what is commonly termed ’de facto’ segregation—primarily resulting from private prejudice, income differences, preferences to live separately, or demographic trends. Our segregation is ’de jure’, resulting mostly from racially explicit public policies designed to create residential patterns we too easily accept as natural or accidental.

These policies were blatant violations of constitutional guarantees that have never been remedied. Without remedy—desegregation, in short—we are sure to see more Fergusons, and Baltimores, and Clevelands, and vainly hope to avoid them by teaching police to be gentler.

 

This article was first published by The Washington Spectator.

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