Racial Discrimination in Housing

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This post is part of the series How Whites Hold Blacks Back

Other posts in this series:

  1. Racial disparity in America: How Do Whites Hold Blacks Back?
  2. Racial Discrimination in Housing (Current)
  3. Black Slavery: The Source of White Real Estate and Power

How Segregated Housing Policies and Redlining Led to Racial Housing Disparity

(05-1-2018, updated 07-08-2018) How did we get to so many impoverished black neighborhoods, especially inner-city neighborhoods? It wasn’t inevitable. A brief history of black housing.

Housing determines access to education, healthcare, jobs, and the ability to build assets. Many white people think, or like to think, that official, legal housing segregation was something of the Deep South and the distant past, and that the segregation we see today ‘just happened’, because of African Americans’ personal choices and circumstances. But there’s a lot more to it. Racial housing disparity didn’t ‘just happen’. Black poverty and the run-down inner cities were not inevitable.

Purposeful Segregation Policies

The housing industry and government on federal, state and local levels implemented purposeful racial segregation policies. Racial housing divisions in America are the result. And they’re still having their effect. Some are still going on. It matters that we know how the present housing segregation came about. If we believe that the current division isn’t based in law, then we don’t feel obliged to find solutions in the law, either. Or take it seriously at all. If this division just happened, if it’s voluntary segregation, why work so hard for integration? We should all just give up then, right?

You might think that, because the housing industry is part of the private sector, the government has little or nothing to do with it. The forces of the market place must have led to the present situation. After all, builders, realtors, mortgage lenders, and home owners determine where to build, how housing is financed, and who buys or rents it. True, but builders have to build in accordance with local zoning laws, building codes and any other local ordinances. And the federal government offers home builders insurance through FHA and VA programs while in return holding them to various standards. The state licenses realtors, and state or federal agencies regulate the mortgage lending institutions — usually banks. The banks benefit from federal guarantees on borrowers’ mortgages. Finally, the courts enforce all contractual agreements in the sale or leasing of housing in cases brought to them.

And if it was purely a matter of economics, if people were divided based on their income alone, poor white people would be living in the inner cities in the same numbers as poor black people, but that isn’t the case. So here’s some history.

The Great Migration

The beginning of the 20th century saw the Great Migration. Starting in 1915, during World War One, five million white American men left the northern factories to join the army, and that provided better job opportunities for blacks than they had in the South. Eventually they spread out to the west-coast cities as well. However, just because these states hadn’t practiced slavery didn’t mean whites there weren’t racist. So, whites quickly implemented different racially-biased housing policies. Most of them prohibited, in one way or another, the use or sale of land or homes in a neighborhood to “members of the Negro or Mongolian races,” in order to keep them white. (‘Mongolian’ was a term for anyone Asian or of Asian origin used in all of American race laws through the 1930s.)

In the following I’ll discuss what I found about the roles of realtors, builders, lenders, home owners, local, state and federal governments, and a few examples of how the racist policies that were initiated a century ago still affect us today.

Realtors and Segregation

Let’s begin with the role of realtors in segregated housing practices. A realtor must belong to the National Association of Real Estate Brokers (NAREB). In 1922, NAREB published Principles of Real Estate Practice, a textbook used to train real estate brokers. It stated that “the purchase of property by certain racial types is very likely to diminish the value of other property. ” The next year NAREB published another text that also stated that black families were a threat to property values:

The colored people certainly have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness but they must recognize the economic disturbance which their presence in a white neighborhood causes and forego their desire to split off from the established district where the rest of their race lives.

As late as 1950, NAREB’s code of ethics included the following:

The realtor should not be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood a character of property or occupancy, members of any race or nationality or any individual whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values in the neighborhood.

The myth that property values suffer if black people move into a neighborhood was created at the beginning of the Great Migration and continued to be actively spread by realtors through the 1950s. However, research since then has shown time and again that race does not affect property values. Property values within a neighborhood are affected by the housing market, the age and condition of the housing and of the subdivision as a whole, price range, the availability of certain house styles, zoning changes, and changes in neighborhood amenities. Of course, when folks use the myth as the basis for action, it does become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If an appraiser, because of personal bias, values a house lower because a black family has moved in next door, and if then a lot of white folks in the neighborhood freak out and all start putting their houses on the market, they will have to offer them at lower prices as well, simply because so many are suddenly available at the same time.

On the other hand, realtors always sold homes to African American families at much higher prices, and their mortgage interests were higher. The housing industry took advantage of this. They’d scare folks in a white neighborhood, telling them that their property was going down in value because a black person was moving into the house right next to their neighborhood or something. Then whole neighborhoods would empty out at rock-bottom prices, and the realtors would then resell them at much higher prices to African Americans and other minorities. They even had a name for this practice: blockbusting.

Lenders and Segregation

Mortgage brokers — banks, usually — supported and encouraged segregated housing policies through their lending. They simply refused to lend to builders who built integrated neighborhoods, or to a home buyer who wanted to buy a house in such a neighborhood. They basically had two reasons: to finance such housing would be an unsound investment, and important, influential clients would be pissed.

State and Local Government

Racially Based Zoning Ordinances

State and local governments were even more explicit in creating segregated housing.  At the start of the Great Migration, many cities began enacting zoning ordinances that required block-by-block racial segregation. Between 1910 and 1917, more than fifteen states allowed this. In 1917, however, the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS), declared in Buchanan v. Warley that these ordinances were unconstitutional, but only because they infringed on private property rights. The argument was that, according to the 14th Amendment, “No State shall make or enforce any law” denying any person’s equal rights. (emphasis mine.) So, as long as government stayed out of it, private citizens and companies could implement any racially restrictive policies they wanted. Despite this ruling, many cities maintained racial zoning ordinances, and some cities even went to court in legal attempts to enforce them as late as the 1950’s.

Racially Restrictive Covenants

The most commonly used alternatives to racial zoning ordinances were racially restrictive covenants — additions to contracts that prohibited resale of the property to non-whites for sometimes up to fifty years. In 1926, SCOTUS officially approved of these covenants in Corrigan v. Buckley, arguing again that the 14th Amendment speaks only of what the states can and can’t do and that private individuals have the right to make whatever covenants they want. In 1948 some African Americans went to court over this again. They had owned a cluster of houses for generations and now a white neighborhood was taking over the area and these white folks claimed that in their covenants no blacks were allowed to use property in any way. Supreme Court case Shelley v. Kraemer: 14th Amendment, etc., no State, etc., private citizens, etc.

But! In Shelley SCOTUS did rule that courts could not enforce the covenants. Small progress — very small. SCOTUS basically declared: The government won’t enforce the racial covenants, but as for your good neighbors, you’re still on your own. It wasn’t until the 1968 Fair Housing Act that private companies and citizens could be held to account for racial discrimination in housing. However, after the 1948 ruling civil rights groups did pressure the FHA and other housing agencies, and the FHA agreed to not support any building or loans involving racial covenants that started in 1950 or later. All the covenants that had been set up earlier than 1950 could stay in place, though, as far as the FHA was concerned. The FHA is the Federal Housing Agency, so more about them in a minute.

Eminent Domain

In addition to racially biased zoning ordinances and racially restrictive covenants, local governments had a few other games they could play. After all, they handed out building permits, determined local building standards and they even decided where water and sewer services would be located. So they still had lots of ways to prevent integrated building. And if all else failed, there was always eminent domain. If a builder was going to build a neighborhood for interracial use, the city could decide they needed the land for public use and acquire it through eminent domain. Example: In 1970, the city of Lackawanna, New York, refused to give a building permit to an African-American sponsor of a low-income housing project. They claimed that the new units would be too big a burden on the sewer and water system. And, oh yes, they had planned to use the land for a park — they just hadn’t gotten round to it yet. Fortunately the court saw right through that one, called it racial discrimination and ruled in favor of the builder.

The Federal Government

Segregation in the New Deal

Apart from the US Supreme Court, the federal government didn’t really get involved in housing until the 1930s. By then the above-mentioned segregation policies were firmly in place. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt launched a series of federal programs — together known as the New Deal — to combat the Great Depression, he could have used the opportunity to get rid of racially segregated housing, but he didn’t. The new federal housing agencies were staffed by people from the housing industry, and of course they lobbied to keep segregated housing in place. In 1933 the government established the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC). Its mission was to refinance small mortgages of homes in foreclosure. It helped a lot of people, but mainly whites. Homes the HOLC acquired in white neighborhoods were only resold to whites. By 1940 the HOLC had financed over a million homes, but less than 25,000 had gone to non-whites.

The  Federal Housing Agency (FHA) and its Race-Based  Lending Practices

In 1934, enter the Federal Housing Agency (FHA), also part of the New Deal effort to provide much-needed housing and jobs during the Great Depression. The FHA did provide a lot of housing, but also pretty much only for whites, by giving federal loan guarantees to builders and developers explicitly on condition that they wouldn’t sell to blacks, and that each individual deed included a covenant prohibiting resale to blacks. In most cases the FHA wouldn’t even give mortgages to blacks in black neighborhoods. This was national FHA policy. It happened not only in the South, but all over the country, in New York, Chicago, Baltimore, Boston, Los Angeles, everywhere.

But, you say, the FHA is a government agency and the 14th amendment says no State … Exactly. Since SCOTUS had decided in 1917 that explicit government housing segregation policies were unconstitutional, the FHA, in its underwriting manual, recommended the use of the racially restrictive covenants, as they “provide the surest protection against undesirable encroachment and inharmonious use.” Undesirable encroachment by the ‘wrong kind of people’ is what that meant. The manual stated that the FHA recommended the covenants, but in reality they only insured the development of neighborhoods and individual mortgages that included them.

A 1973 HUD report notes:

The practice of using racial covenants became so socially acceptable that in “1937 a leading magazine of nationwide circulation awarded 10 communities a ‘shield of honor’ for an umbrella of restrictions against the ‘wrong kind of people’. By 1940, according to a magazine article, 80% of both Chicago and Los Angeles carried restrictive covenants barring black families.   

And by the ‘wrong kind of people’ they meant ‘members of the Negro or Mongolian race’.

A typical covenant included the following:

…hereafter no part of said property or any portion thereof shall be…occupied by any person not of the Caucasian race, it being intended hereby to restrict the use of said property…against occupancy as owners or tenants of any portion of said property for resident or other purposes by people of the Negro or Mongolian race.

The new FHA-subsidized housing was built mostly on the edges of cities, where unlimited space allowed for big lots and bigger houses, with higher price tags and therefore not in reach of lower and moderate-income African-American families, even if they had been accepted in the neighborhood. Also, it was easier to build new neighborhoods with racial restrictions than to force-change the make-up of existing neighborhoods. They just built nice new white neighborhoods and simply ignored the rest.

Racially Biased Redlining

Along with the racially restrictive covenants, the FHA also had an explicit redlining policy. The term ‘redlining‘ refers to the practice of using a red line on a map to delineate the area where financial institutions refused to invest.  The FHA would not insure housing loans in African-American neighborhoods — even if the mortgage applicant could amply afford it  —  or in white neighborhoods near black neighborhoods, because those were at risk of becoming interracial. In Detroit one black neighborhood became surrounded by white neighborhoods, which the FHA would therefore not insure, until a developer built a large wall around the black neighborhood; then the FHA was good with it. Cities also used highways as barriers between white and black urban neighborhoods.

Segregation and Political Clout

The restrictive covenants and the redlining also had the effect of mapping out the positions of power in the cities. They determined which areas of a city would have the most political and financial influence, receive the most attention from elected leaders and profit the most from city services. And, in turn, those who were most influential could then pressure elected leaders to keep their particular area white. And so the system kept itself in place.

Urban churches, hospitals, and universities that didn’t want to be anywhere near African Americans pulled their political strings to make sure that didn’t happen. Despite these racist policies, those institutions were still tax-exempt, in other words: subsidized by the federal government, in other words: the federal government was fine with this.

The Suburbs

After WWII and through the 1960s, the economy boomed and the suburbs bloomed, ever further removed from the city centers — a nice escape at the end of the day from the hustle and bustle of the city, and from ‘the wrong kind of people’. From about 1960 onward, housing renewal occurred almost exclusively in the suburbs and was still almost exclusively accessibly to whites. Companies, however, kept coming to the cities, and, along with their white employees, their black workforce kept coming as well.

The Deterioration of the Inner Cities

The only new housing available to African Americans was a very small number of units located in minority enclaves and designated for minority occupancy. By 1959 not even 2% of  FHA-insured housing built in the post-war housing boom was accessible to African Americans. They weren’t welcome and couldn’t afford homes in the suburbs with their large lots and large homes, and could often not even get mortgages in black neighborhoods. Developers and city planners kept multifamily housing to a minimum. They mainly directed blacks toward the limited and aging rental housing in the inner cities, to join the millions of other African Americans who were already stuck there.

The exodus of the middle class and the FHA’s race-based lending practices and redlining led to rapid deterioration of the inner cities. Exploitation by slumlords became the norm; the city didn’t pick up trash as often in black neighborhoods; they didn’t maintain the roads and utilities infrastructure; and by authorizing mixed zoning in non-white neighborhoods, they invited industrial building in, with all its pollution and other problems.

The 1968 Fair Housing Act

It’s not that the federal government did absolutely nothing. In 1962 President John F. Kennedy issued an executive order on equal opportunity in housing. But, like the 1948 Shelley ruling, it was extremely limited. It only covered FHA and VA-guaranteed loans, and only those issued after the executive order was signed. In reality it only covered about 1% of the country’s housing. In 1964 Section VI of the Civil Rights Act also addressed equal opportunity housing, but it covered less than half a percent. The 1968 Fair Housing Act (Section VIII of the Civil Rights Act), which prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion or national origin, covers 80% of all housing, but at first it had weak enforcement powers, limited to litigation and voluntary compliance. A HUD report from 1973 admits that, up to that point, they had never withdrawn federal funds in cases of discrimination, even though that was the penalty for violation of Section 8.

So even after the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968, segregation continued. Racially restrictive covenants existed until the 1970s. State and local governments were – and often still are — also guilty, by not doing anything when developers or landlords discriminated, by not protecting black people and their homes when they moved into a hostile white neighborhood, or by not calling people out when folks in a predominantly white area were up in arms about plans to build affordable housing nearby.

Race-Based Housing Policies Today: Hurricane Katrina

For instance, when disaster strikes and temporary measures have to be taken, some towns will take that opportunity to increase their racial housing disparity. In September 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. It flooded approximately 228,000 housing units, roughly 45% of all homes in New Orleans. City councils in the Greater New Orleans Area didn’t enact any laws that explicitly kept lower-income African American residents from coming back. They just changed zoning laws and restricted lower-income housing and multifamily housing. And they increased the cost of single-family homes, making more desirable neighborhoods with better services and amenities even less accessible to minority groups than they had been before.

The Blood-Relative Ordinance

In September 2006,  just a year after Katrina, St. Bernard Parish passed the ‘blood relative’ ordinance. This ordinance restricted home rentals to blood relatives “within the first, second or third direct ascending or descending generations.” If someone wanted to rent to anyone else, they had to get a special permit from the Parish (county) council. If a landlord rented a housing unit out to someone other than a blood relative within the first, second or third generation and without a permit, both landlord and renter would be subject to criminal prosecution (including a misdemeanor charge, a fine of $50 to $250 for each day they were in violation of the ordinance) and a civil penalty ($100 for each day of illegal rental) as well as administrative costs, court costs and attorney fees for investigation and prosecution of the civil matter.

The council claimed the blood relative ordinance was necessary “to maintain the integrity and stability of established neighborhoods”. However, the new zoning restricted prefabricated housing (mobile homes) and multifamily housing and made single-family housing more expensive. This was one of the main reasons many African Americans had not come back. Since September 2006 over 90% of St. Bernard’s housing was owned by whites, so the the blood-relative ordinance made single-family rentals only available to whites. So with this  and the many other barriers to entry, St. Bernard Parish Council not just preserved and maintained the integrity and stability of established pre-Katrina white neighborhoods; they drastically reduced the overall number of African Americans in the Parish. The ordinance is awfully similar to a racist Jim Crow law passed after the Great Flood of 1932, which stated “no person or corporation shall rent an apartment in an apartment house or other like structure to a person who is not of the same race as the other occupants.” In 2008 a fair housing suit was filed and the ordinance was overturned, but by now it was three years since Katrina and even harder for many people to come back.

Limited low-income subsidized Housing

The Greater New Orleans Area also took the opportunity to decrease the number of low-income subsidized housing units. In 2006 Jefferson Parish unanimously passed a resolution declaring that the council did not want any subsidized apartment complexes or other multi-family housing built in the cities of Gretna or Terrytown. One housing project did manage to slip through and get state funding, so then the council stalled the building while it considered rezoning for the area. They lost eventually, but again, they had successfully played for time. On April 3, 2008, Kenner City, also in Jefferson Parish, imposed a moratorium on the construction of multi-family housing by no longer giving out permits for developments with five or more apartments. The council claimed there was no shortage of multifamily housing in Kenner, even though thousands of people were still applying for federal rental assistance vouchers.

A Lost Opportunity

Hurricane Katrina uncovered the disparities between middle and upper-class whites and moderate and lower-income African Americans in New Orleans. The local government had poorly maintained the black neighborhoods; many houses were not up to safety codes. — and many folks had no way to evacuate, leading to countless unnecessary deaths. The levees and flood walls failed in fifty places, flooding 85% of New Orleans. In rebuilding, the city had the opportunity to utilize low-income housing tax credits to change from an extremely segregated city to a city with affordable housing spread all over, integrating neighborhoods and eliminating barriers to middle-class services, education and jobs. Instead the city council made things even worse for low-income families — for those that were able to come back at all, that is.

Rural Towns and Racial Panic

Special Permit Projects

Predominantly white rural towns that are growing, transforming into suburbs of larger nearby cities, fight the influx of people of color with tooth and nail as well. In my little town, adjacent to Austin, Texas, beautiful subdivisions with gorgeous houses are popping up like rain lilies after a cloudburst. We live in one of them. The local public schools are relatively good, apparently. However, there’s practically no affordable housing for all the folks who maintain the luscious greenbelts, who work at the gas stations, who dry-clean our clothes, who stock the shelves and bag our groceries at the supermarket. A year or two ago a developer wanted to build an affordable housing complex (apartments) across the highway from our neighborhood. Great! Right? No, many of the good (white) people in my neighborhood were up in arms. Crime would go up! Their (Hispanic) kids would be going to our schools!

Because it would be subsidized, it was a ‘special permit’ deal and the town council got to vote on it. Guess what happened. (lack of question mark intentional.) These special permit projects require the builder to submit impact studies to the city council. Projected impact of the housing development on schools, infrastructure, the environment, and also, often, whether the project “will be in harmony with the character of the surrounding development,” or “compatible with surrounding land uses” or something of that nature. But ‘in harmony with,’ or ‘compatible with’ — these terms are so vague that they could refer to anything, from legitimate disharmony like having a pig farm next to a swimming pool to perceived disharmony from having Hispanics living in an apartment complex nearby.

Age Restrictions in Apartment Complexes

A year later an apartment complex was built as part of our neighborhood, but they’re luxury apartments, so that was okay. Age restrictions also keep segregation in place. Many reasonably priced apartments have age restrictions, or the complex has hardly any or no units with three or more bedrooms. The apartment complex in our neighborhood has a few three-bedroom units, but again, they’re luxury apartments, not for families living off low to moderate incomes. Well-off elderly are welcome everywhere, of course; they pay more in taxes than they use. Our neighborhood also has a few ‘garden homes’ for older couples with plenty of money.

HUD’s Section 8 Vouchers

The Department of Public Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has the Section 8 voucher system, that allows lower to moderate-income families to find reasonable housing themselves, and if it meets the requirements, HUD will pay part of the rent, or, in some cases, the mortgage. The idea, presumably, is to encourage voluntary integration of lower and moderate-income families into more middle-class neighborhoods and schools. The Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston did testing around 2004 and 2005 and found that African Americans and Latinos experience discrimination in half of their attempts to rent, purchase, or finance homes in greater Boston. Families with children and people with Section 8 vouchers are discriminated against two-thirds of the time when seeking rental housing. African Americans and Latinos were asked more questions about their qualifications, shown fewer homes, told about fewer listings, steered toward lower-income neighborhoods, quoted higher loan rates and offered fewer discounts on closing costs.


History shows that the racial division we have in American housing now is not the result of poverty or personal choices, but of purposeful racial discrimination, where government on every level worked with the private housing industry to artificially create this system of residential segregation. The segregation of communities through racially biased city zoning ordinances, racially restrictive covenants and redlining also had the effect of concentrating different demographics into neat, definable areas, clearly delineating where the folks with the most political and financial influence lived and worked, and therefore where elected leaders should focus there attention, and conversely, which areas would get little to no attention from elected officials, the fewest funds, the least maintenance, and poorest services.  All these developments and more led to ghettoization of inner cities and other enclaves of minority housing, and to stigmatization of African Americans in general as undesirable neighbors for white folks.

So now we have a concentration of low to moderate-income African Americans in inner cities or tucked away in rural mobile home subdivisions with few and badly maintained amenities and services, isolated from the American mainstream. And in general residential segregation is now so deeply ingrained in American life that, sure, by now lots of African Americans wouldn’t even want to live in majority-white neighborhoods because they don’t feel welcome, and I suppose quite a few New Orleans African-American families who fled after Katrina probably don’t even want to come back because they’re treated better somewhere else. But that doesn’t make the present housing disparity a form of de facto segregation.

And as for us whites, you just have to watch the news to see how racial segregation is alive and well and how it affects our views. That young man who was arrested while moving into his new apartment, and those young women who suddenly found themselves surrounded by seven police cars and a helicopter — a helicopter! — hovering overhead as they were checking out of an Airbnb. People called 911 to report burglaries — because they were black in apparently predominantly white neighborhoods, walking in and out of front doors, carrying things!

Whether you’re white or black or whatever ethnicity, if you’re American, your opinions and personal decisions were formed, nurtured, supported and sustained by explicit official government and housing industry policies. Whether that changes anything for you or not, at least now you know.

This post is part 2 in the series How Whites Hold Blacks Back. It was first published on the blog Resident Alien: Being Dutch in America, under the title: “But That Was Then, This Is Now : Part 2 Housing Inequality”, 05-01-2-18)


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2 thoughts on “Racial Discrimination in Housing

  1. Excellent Blog! This is something that should be taught in all schools but of course it never will. I am amazed at how Trump supporters like to say that racism was dead in America until President Obama was elected and then he brought it back. They have absolutely no idea (or at least pretend not to have) how that statement drips with both irony and racism and deceit…all principles upon which America was sadly founded.

    1. Yes. I don’t know, I go back and forth between thinking this country is a write-off and thinking that Trump is a wake-up call and is making the better half do some long overdue soul-searching. Whether the Trump half ever will, I guess that depends on exactly how badly he gets to screw everyone before he leaves the Oval Office, whatever form that takes.

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