The global protests for racial justice are not solely a reaction to the recent, senseless murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. While the taking of these lives is enough to demand change, it is a legacy of injustices that has built to this tipping point.
Discriminatory practices touch all facets of livelihood for Black Americans. The 2016 median wealth for white Americans was $171,000 and only a jarring $17,409 for Black Americans. Indicators like this alert us that we need to move the conversation beyond “hard work” and “picking up bootstraps” and conduct a deeper investigation into our systems. One significant causal vehicle of our racial wealth gap is housing discrimination.
Homeownership is one of the most reliable tools in America to build generational wealth and create stability over time. However, Black Americans are at a disadvantage when it comes to both owning property and renting. According to the 2020 Census Bureau, 44% of Black Americans are homeowners, 30 points behind white households. This gap comes from race-driven policies as old as our nation.
There are several predatory policies and practices that continue to put Black Americans at a deficit when it comes to housing, and therefore wealth, opportunity, and wellbeing — below are just a few.
In 1937, in response to the Great Depression, the New Deal established the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation to refinance mortgages at risk of default and foreclosure. This federal agency developed color-coded maps depicting the level of risk involved when lending in specific neighborhoods across the nation. Areas marked in red were considered the riskiest places to invest mainly dependent on the racial makeup of the area. On every area description form, there was one question that simply stated, “Negro, yes or no.”
While redlining restricted loans for Black families within these neighborhoods, outside investors were known to purchase property within the areas only to inflate rents knowing these families had little mobility and few options. The refusal of loans to Black communities forced them into these higher rents — making it even more difficult to build wealth for a downpayment.
The Fair Housing Act outlawed redlining in 1968, but its effects still spread across our nation, and its motives carry on through evolutions of the practice. Today, one way redlining shows itself is through single-family zoning.
Even today, dense cities limit affordable housing access in desirable areas by only permitting single-family housing. This practice thwarts Black households who cannot afford single-family homes because racist policies like redlining impeded generational wealth building. With no affordable housing options in these areas, families are priced out of the homes and the neighborhood. Notably, to be priced out of a home in these neighborhoods is to be priced out of the best public services such as schools, hospitals, and parks.
Six years after redlining was banned, policymakers passed the Equal Credit Opportunity to provide lending based on credit scores. However, since white families had been given decades longer to build up their credit, Black families were typically denied. Now, with less wealth and more measures restricting their mobility, Black families are often wrongfully denied mortgages and left to face rising rents in neighborhoods with the worst services.
It has been just over 50 years since redlining was deemed illegal, but that is not nearly enough time to undo the inequality it created. Black communities were denied the right to homeownership due to their race, and their families are still paying the consequences today.
While redlining was a common legal practice to deny loans based on race, it is merely one way that Black families faced housing discrimination. Today, Black families still get denied more often and face higher interest rates. This practice has its roots, like redlining, deep in American history.
At Oregon’s founding, for example, Black people were prohibited from living within its borders. On the other hand, 650 acres were given to any single white man who chose to settle there — and 650 more if he was married. These drastic preventative measures at our country’s founding show why now white wealth would have to hypothetically stop growing for 230 years to give Black collective wealth a chance to catch up.
Today, standard practices continue to deny homeownership due to race. As single-family zoning shows, the methods have evolved to become camouflaged harm.
After redlining was banned, instead of offering Black communities interest-based mortgages which White Americans received, lenders offered threatening contracts. It was common for these contracts to drastically condemn Black homeowners for one missed payment. Even if a Black family kept up with their payments for decades, one missed payment could lead to a foreclosure — eradicating hard-earned wealth and leaving the family with no built equity in the home.
Those practices are now outlawed, but we haven’t come far from that reality. We are currently experiencing the lowest Black homeownership in decades, mainly due to subprime loans disproportionately given to Black households contributing to the housing crash. During this crash, 8% of Black families lost their homes to foreclosure.
In 2006, according to Jacob William Faber, a sociologist at New York University, Black families earning more than $200,000 annually were more likely to be given a subprime loan than a white family making $30,000. Faber went on to find that members of the Black community, in general, were more than twice as likely to receive a subprime loan than white applicants. Racist policies continue to make skin color a deciding factor in economic opportunity.
Since Black families are more likely to experience mortgage discrimination, many have no choice but to face rising rent prices. According to a 2019 report from Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, rent prices have increased by at least 3% for the last 21 consecutive quarters. This continuous rising of rent is making it nearly impossible for many to save for a down payment. With minority households accounting for 76% of renter household growth through 2018, our country’s Black families are most susceptible to brutal commutes, crowding, and even evictions or homelessness.
As COVID-19 moves us into another recession, 73% of Black Americans identified as not having funds to cover expenses for three months in case of an emergency. With less established wealth built up, Black families are most prone to experiencing housing insecurity as a multi-generational consequence of racism.
Policy Created “the Hood”
Even attempts to help housing disparities have created more harm than good due to racial inequity. When creating new affordable housing, federal and local subsidized programs prioritize building in already-distressed neighborhoods. Neighborhood poverty then shapes the inequality of public services such as schools, policing, garbage pick-up and more.
In addition to segregation induced by government policy, “Discrimination by landlords and real estate agents blocked minorities from moving into white neighborhoods, and produced high levels of residential segregation in metropolitan areas across the country.” — Alexander Polikoff 
A 2011 audit in Portland found that landlords and leasing agents discriminated against Black and Latino renters 64% of the time, citing higher rents or deposits and adding fees. These segregated communities are often devalued further as commercial and industrial zones are permitted to border them. Black families then find themselves in neighborhoods plagued by pollution, below average services, and external perceptions that it is all somehow their fault.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Budgets are moral documents.” The neglect of funds to Black communities reveal the immoral decision-making of generations of policymakers. And now, as we find ourselves in a health crisis, the decision to continuously neglect Black neighborhoods is placing them disproportionately in harm’s way. Again.
Early data shows the Black community is suffering from COVID-19 more than any other group. In New York City alone, Black Americans are dying at nearly double the rate of the white population. Racial residential segregation is partly to blame for the underlying health conditions exposed during the crisis. These segregated neighborhoods are more likely to be in food deserts, have polluted air, and be further removed from adequate healthcare.
Racial equity is not possible without affordable housing and improving services in neglected Black neighborhoods. We can advocate now for enhanced access via downpayment assistance for Black Americans, alternative methods for assessing credit such as rental history, consumer protections against predatory lenders, combating single-family zoning in dense cities to promote mixed-income communities, and increasing affordable housing stock. Any of these systemic changes would be a step in the direction of rectifying generations of unequal policies.
The collision of COVID-19 and recent racial injustices bring the ramifications of discriminatory housing policy into sharp relief as just one part of a system that was designed to hurt our Black neighbors. Progress demands that we design for equality as intentionally and as unapologetically as our country was designed for white supremacy.
- Polikoff, Alexander. 2006. Waiting for Gautreaux: A Story of Segregation, Housing, and the Black Ghetto. Evanston, IL:Northwestern University Press.