‘Color of Law’ author talks housing segregation
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.