The legacy of decades of housing discrimination still plagues the United States

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On May 31, President Biden proclaimed June National Homeownership Month to recognize his commitment to fair housing and access to generational wealth for all, especially Americans of color.

The history of discrimination when looking for housing is deep. Although fair housing is a protected civil right under the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, history has shown us that freedom to exercise this right is very limited for African Americans and other ethnic groups who are considered “ignorant” in American society “ apply, was always brittle. Addressing this problem requires not only a proclamation, but a coming to terms with this history.

At the turn of the 20th century, white supremacy, segregation, and racial violence dominated American society in both the South and North. While segregation continued in schools, food stalls, bus stops and neighborhoods in Jim Crow South, it also continued in the North through housing discrimination.

In 1910, Baltimore Mayor J. Barry Mahool implemented the first racist residential zoning ordinance in America, making it the first city to make redlining legal. The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) denied home loans to African Americans in Baltimore’s white neighborhoods. As middle-class African Americans circumvented the legal and economic barriers to homeownership in all-white neighborhoods, self-proclaimed white supremacists fought back against their black neighbors with threats, rioting, and fleeing their own communities.

This quickly became a national trend in northern cities across the country as 6.6 million black migrants fled the south during the Great Migration (1916-1970) to seek decent jobs, homes and schools in the north. News reports from New York, Baltimore, and Chicago described the influx of black families into all-white communities as a “black invasion” that sparked lawsuits, white riots, and white flight.

Black community members fought back.

In 1910, phrenologist Adena CE Minott bought a house at 121 W. 136th St. in an all-white neighborhood of Harlem to house black students at her school, the Clio School of Mental Sciences. In response, 600 white members of the Harlem Property Owners’ Protective Association spent a year trying to “push” Minott out of the neighborhood. The organization pursued lawsuits against Minott, and members pledged not to rent or sell their homes to African Americans for 15 years. The New York branch of the NAACP later established a vigilance committee and filed a lawsuit against the homeowners’ association to guarantee African Americans the right to buy homes on 132nd and 139th streets in Harlem.

When city ordinances and lawsuits failed to keep black families out, racist white residents protested the arrival of black neighbors with cross-burnings, arson, bombings, and the stoning of black homes. For example, on March 4, 1922, black school principal Harry T. Pratt and his family moved to a “solid white” block at 527 Stanford Pl. in Baltimore. Three days later, a group of white neighbors armed with bricks and pistols attacked the Pratts’ home, smashing its windows, unhooking the front door and spattering ink on the marble steps.

When uprisings proved ineffective, the whites fled. In March 1923, two white Chicagoans identified in the Chicago Tribune as “Yanker” and “An Evader” wrote letters to the editor detailing how the “invasion” of black migrants inspired them to go elsewhere. In Yanker’s letter, he described himself as a “white man” who moved four times in six years to avoid “the black invasion” of the Southside. In An Evader’s letter, “Race Irritation,” the author complained that African Americans were moving into all-white communities throughout Chicago. One evader explained that other non-Anglo-Saxon groups stayed in their own communities, such as Chinatown and Little Italy, but African-Americans refused to settle entirely in the Black Belt on Chicago’s south side.

Both authors thought that African Americans should encroach on their communities and whites should fight back in any way they could. Finally, white resistance to desegregation facilitated the process of hyper-segregation of inner-city neighborhoods prior to World War II.

Some white journalists who covered these news reports even voiced their displeasure with the desegregation. As a journalist for the Birmingham News explained in his 1918 article on white resistance to black neighbors in Philadelphia, black migrants had no right to “impose” whites and “invade” districts “long-held by the white community.” He went on to say that whites have a right to “outraged protest” or riot because the “consequences” of accepting segregation are “bad feelings, depreciation of real estate, and an increase in lawlessness.” The underlying sentiment was that Black people were inherently criminals, regardless of their character, social status, or occupation.

Between 1920 and 1948, restrictive covenants found on the house deeds of nearly all new private housing developments across the country prevented African Americans from living in white neighborhoods. Such documents contained overtly neoclassical and racist clauses urging homeowners to ban multi-family dwellings, restrict domestic animals such as pigs and chickens that some rural migrants owned to sustain themselves, and the letting and sale of homes to non-white people such as banning “Africans, Negroes, Ethiopians” and to a lesser extent “Asians, Mexicans and Jews”.

Such restrictions also arose from federal housing policies introduced during the Great Depression (1929-1941) which mandated racial homogeneity in new developments. Real estate agents also worked to protect the rights of developers and homeowners who wanted racially segregated neighborhoods.

These policies meant that when working-class Southern African Americans came to cities like Philadelphia, they often lived in tenements, shacks, and row houses in segregated, all-Black neighborhoods or alongside white immigrant families. While housing in these communities could be affordable, they were typically overcrowded and in “undesirable” locations near shipyards, rivers, and swamps. Many black families were forced to live in poorly maintained slum houses that sometimes collapsed, resulting in deaths. When tragedies like these occurred, city, religious, and charitable committees urged local and federal governments to demolish slums and fund public housing projects.

Efforts to fund public housing only made matters worse. As part of the New Deal, the federal government passed the Wagner-Steagall Act in 1937, which gave cities millions of dollars in funding to create housing projects. The housing authorities cleared slum areas and were responsible for building safe and hygienic housing for those who could not afford “adequate housing provided by private companies”.

As a result, occupancy in these developments reflected the racial segregation of the community, and in some cases up to 98 percent of public housing was placed in all-Black neighborhoods. Over time, social housing earned class and racial stigmas that caused some middle-class whites and blacks to either move to “better” neighborhoods or to mass protest against the establishment of public housing in their communities.

The Fair Housing Act 1968 attempted to rectify this situation. It nullified the city ordinances and restrictive covenants that made segregation and housing discrimination legal in America. Despite this, white neighbors continued to respond violently as black and mixed-race families attempted to integrate their neighborhoods.

Biden’s proclamation comes almost a year before the 55th anniversary of the passage of the Fair Housing Act signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson, which guarantees everyone regardless of race, class, gender and citizenship has equal access to housing.

Yet the legacy of pre-WWII housing discrimination can still be seen. Today it is one of the main causes of hyper-segregation, racial tensions and racial poverty. The same disadvantaged, non-white spaces that were marginalized by segregation generations ago are now hotspots for Covid-19 cases, food deserts and underfunded education. Discrimination in housing may be outlawed on paper, but there is still much work to be done to eradicate the aftermath of its former existence today.

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