‘Color of Law’ au­thor talks hous­ing se­gre­ga­tion

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - LOCAL PERSPECTIVES - BY TIM DOD­SON tdod­son@times­dis­patch.com (804) 649-6456

An ac­claimed hous­ing re­searcher sought to chal­lenge a “na­tional myth” in front of a packed crowd at Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth Univer­sity on Wed­nes­day night.

“We made a res­o­lu­tion to abol­ish se­gre­ga­tion in the mid-20th cen­tury

... and yet we’ve left un­touched the big­gest se­gre­ga­tion of all,” Richard Roth­stein said to a room of about 200 peo­ple, who came to hear him lec­ture about his work on the his­tory of racial hous­ing se­gre­ga­tion in the United States.

Roth­stein pushed back on the no­tion that residential se­gre­ga­tion across the coun­try is pri­mar­ily the re­sult of the choices of private ac­tors — home­buy­ers, real es­tate agents and banks, for ex­am­ple — by draw­ing attention to the govern­ment’s role in cre­at­ing poli­cies and con­di­tions that al­lowed for dis­crim­i­na­tion to thrive. Roth­stein ar­gued that ac­tors and poli­cies at lo­cal, state and fed­eral lev­els of govern­ment played a sig­nif­i­cant role in fa­cil­i­tat­ing the de­vel­op­ment of pat­terns of racial se­gre­ga­tion.

He ar­tic­u­lated these ar­gu­ments in his 2017 book, “The Color of Law: A For­got­ten His­tory of How Our Govern­ment Seg­re­gated Amer­ica.” Wed­nes­day night’s event was co-spon­sored by the L. Douglas Wilder School of Govern­ment and Public Af­fairs at VCU and Hous­ing Op­por­tu­ni­ties Made Equal of Vir­ginia Inc.

Dur­ing his lec­ture, Roth­stein talked about the for­ma­tion of the Fed­eral Hous­ing Ad­min­is­tra­tion in the 1930s, which ini­tially in­sured home mort­gages for white Amer­i­cans but re­fused to do so for AfricanAmer­i­cans. This re­fusal was as­so­ci­ated with so­called redlin­ing, which refers to a clas­si­fi­ca­tion that the Home Own­ers’ Loan Corp. — also created by the fed­eral govern­ment in the 1930s as part of the New Deal — used to des­ig­nate ar­eas that would be seen as a high risk for public and private lenders.

Race proved to be a defin­ing fac­tor in those rat­ings, African-Amer­i­can neigh­bor­hoods were dis­pro­por­tion­ately marked by red ar­eas on the cor­po­ra­tion’s maps. As a re­sult, African-Amer­i­cans were de­nied ac­cess to mort­gages and op­por­tu­ni­ties to build wealth over time through home­own­er­ship.

Roth­stein said the FHA pro­vided sup­port for white Amer­i­cans mov­ing into sin­gle-fam­ily homes in the sub­urbs, con­tribut­ing to pat­terns of residential se­gre­ga­tion that left mi­nor­ity fam­i­lies in con­cen­trated ar­eas of poverty in cities. He said the fed­eral govern­ment sup­ported builders who placed clauses in deeds pro­hibit­ing the sale of homes to African-Amer­i­can buy­ers.

“Whites were sub­si­dized to move into the sub­urbs, and African-Amer­i­cans were pro­hib­ited by fed­eral pol­icy from do­ing so,” he said.

Roth­stein also talked about the his­tory of public hous­ing, not­ing that it was ini­tially in­tended for mid­dle-class fam­i­lies when con­struc­tion came to a halt dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion and there was a hous­ing short­age.

The first public hous­ing projects were seg­re­gated, but over time, as white fam­i­lies moved to the sub­urbs and wait­ing lists of African-Amer­i­cans seek­ing public hous­ing grew, the govern­ment in­te­grated public hous­ing, Roth­stein said. As in­dus­tries left cities, im­pov­er­ished fam­i­lies be­came more con­cen­trated in public hous­ing and the fed­eral govern­ment started to sub­si­dize peo­ple liv­ing in the units, he said.

“There was noth­ing hid­den about this; it was well­known,” Roth­stein said about the his­tory he was pre­sent­ing.

Lo­cal hous­ing ex­perts and re­search sug­gest that the im­pacts of redlin­ing poli­cies con­tinue to be felt in Rich­mond.

“These cy­cles of dis­in­vest­ment are just con­tin­u­ing to be per­pet­u­ated to­day,” Heather Cris­lip, pres­i­dent and CEO of HOME, said in an interview.

HOME de­tailed some of the lega­cies of redlin­ing in a re­port, “Where You Live Makes All The Dif­fer­ence: An Op­por­tu­nity Map of the Rich­mond Re­gion.” The re­port notes that Rich­mond’s for­merly red­lined neigh­bor­hoods were among those that “bore the brunt of the sub­prime lend­ing and fore­clo­sure cri­sis.”

The re­port specif­i­cally cites a HOME analysis of deeds of trust taken from ad­dresses in the Rich­mond area that re­ceived a no­tice of trustee sale be­tween Jan­uary 2007 and April 2009, which found that neigh­bor­hoods with low Home Own­ers’ Loan Corp. rat­ings of C or D (red­lined) saw eight times as many no­tices of sales as those for­merly with higher A or B rat­ings.

“The shad­ows cast by seg­re­ga­tion­ist poli­cies — whether they were in ed­u­ca­tion, whether they were in hous­ing — they are very, very long shad­ows, and we con­tinue to live in those shad­ows,” Laura Lafayette, CEO of the Rich­mond As­so­ci­a­tion of Real­tors and the Cen­tral Vir­ginia Re­gional Mul­ti­ple List­ing Ser­vice, said in an interview.

One of the so­lu­tions Roth­stein sug­gested was re­peal­ing ex­clu­sion­ary zon­ing or­di­nances in lo­cal­i­ties across the coun­try and en­cour­ag­ing the adop­tion of zon­ing that would al­low for more town homes, apart­ments and mul­ti­fam­ily units to be con­structed in ar­eas that have pre­ferred sin­gle-fam­ily homes.

He said a sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenge for ad­dress­ing the legacy of seg­re­ga­tion­ist poli­cies is ap­a­thy.

Lafayette said a pol­icy that could en­cour­age more eq­ui­table de­vel­op­ment in Rich­mond is tak­ing prop­erty taxes from houses that have been in the city’s tax abate­ment pro­gram — in which a home is ex­empt for taxes for seven years as im­prove­ments are made — and putting the rev­enue into the city’s af­ford­able hous­ing trust fund.

Cris­lip said a crit­i­cal com­po­nent of cre­at­ing more in­clu­sive and af­ford­able hous­ing is be­ing pur­pose­ful about where de­vel­op­ment takes place.

“We need to be de­vel­op­ing af­ford­able hous­ing in neigh­bor­hoods that were not red­lined so that we start to dis­trib­ute hous­ing and dis­trib­ute af­ford­able hous­ing through­out the re­gion and not just con­cen­trate it in ar­eas that have been his­tor­i­cally dis­in­vested in,” she said.

Lafayette said she thinks Roth­stein’s visit pro­vides an op­por­tu­nity for the com­mu­nity. “It’s an op­por­tu­nity to say, ‘OK, that’s the re­al­ity in which we find our­selves, but we can create a dif­fer­ent fu­ture re­al­ity,’” she said.


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