Housing segregation traditionally has been the practice of denying African American or other minority groups equal access to housing through the process of misinformation, denial of realty and financing services, and racial steering. Misinformation can take the form of realtors or landlords not giving a certain ethnic group, or race, an accurate portrayal of available units. Racial steering typically occurs when realtors or landlords steer European Americans to available units in white communities, and African Americans to black or racially mixed communities. Generally, racial steering involves misinformation on the part of the realtor or landlord as well, because they will not tell the African Americans or other minorities about the available units in the European American communities.
These subtle discriminatory measures have taken the place of outright racism since the 1960s, and do not allow African Americans to have many choices about where they are able to live. This then causes the devalorization cycle of the few neighborhoods they are able to choose from, which is the downward cycle of the neighborhood that leads to redlining and abandonment, and eventually gentrification. Gentrification of a neighborhood occurs when the neighborhood has a high degree of abandonment, and then attracts an influx of investment and undergoes physical renovation and an increase in property market values. In many cases, the lower-income residents who occupied the neighborhood prior to its renovation can no longer afford properties there. This downward cycle leading to gentrification mainly occurs in large metropolitan areas in African American or racially mixed neighborhoods.
History of housing discrimination
The practice of informally segregating and discriminating based on race has always existed. However, in 1934 the practice of redlining neighborhoods came into existence through the National Housing Act of 1934. This practice, also known as mortgage discrimination, began when the federal government and the newly formed Federal Housing Administration allowed the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation to create “residential security maps,” outlining the level of security for real-estate investments in 239 cities around the United States. On these maps, high-risk areas were outlined in red. Many minority neighborhoods were redlined in these maps, meaning that banks would deny all mortgage capital to people living within them. This contributed to the decay of many of these neighborhoods because the lack of loans for buying or making repairs on the homes made it difficult for these neighborhoods to attract and keep families. Many urban historians point to redlining as one of the main factors for urban disinvestment and the decline of central cities in the middle decades of the 20th century.
The GI Bill
At the end of World War II, the GI Bill furthered segregation practices by keeping African Americans out of European American neighborhoods, showing another side to African American housing discrimination. When millions of GIs returned home from overseas, they took advantage of the “Servicemen’s Readjustment Act,” or the GI Bill. This important document was signed in 1944 by Franklin D. Roosevelt, and gave veterans education and training opportunities, guaranteed loans for home, farm, or business, job finding assistance, and unemployment pay of $20 a week for up to 52 weeks if a veteran could not find a job. This law allowed millions of U.S. soldiers to purchase their first homes with inexpensive mortgages, which meant the huge growth of suburbs and the birth of the ideal of a suburban lifestyle. Every soldier was excited to take advantage of the cheap mortgage rates that were guaranteed by the GI Bill, but some of the African American soldiers met with disappointing results when attempting to buy a house in the fast-growing and popular suburbs.
African Americans were met with discrimination when trying to purchase a home in the overwhelmingly European American neighborhoods. The Realtors would not show these houses to African Americans, and when they did, they would try and talk them out of buying the home. This discrimination was based on the fact that Realtors believed they would be losing future business by dealing or listing with African Americans, and that it would be unethical to sell a house in a European American neighborhood to African Americans because it would drive the property values of the surrounding houses down. Even though the GI Bill was made available to all returning U.S. soldiers, preference was given to the whites for living out the American Dream of owning a home in suburban America.
Both redlining and discrimination through the GI Bill relegated most African Americans to a concentrated area within the city, so the declining property values and the higher crime rates could be kept in a contained area. The relegation of African Americans to the neighborhoods that were receiving no support due to redlining practices was a self-fulfilling prophecy that created the high crime slums that the city was afraid of.
The Fair Housing Act
The overt discriminatory practices of refusal of sale and loans continued unabated until at least 1968, when the Fair Housing Act was passed. After this act was passed, outright refusal to sell property to African Americans became rare, given that that behavior could lead to prosecution under the Fair Housing Law. The Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity is charged with administering and enforcing fair housing laws. Any person who believes that they have faced housing discrimination based on their race can file a fair housing complaint.
Additionally, The Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 required banks to apply the same anti-discriminatory guidelines to their lending criteria in all circumstances. These acts did not completely stop discriminatory practices, however. The discrimination moved into more subtle techniques, including racial steering and misinformation given to African American prospective buyers. Although these laws exist in theory, they have not accomplished their goal of eradicating discrimination based on race in the housing market. Audits of the housing market in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, and many other major metropolitan areas have shown discrimination toward African Americans continuing into the 80s, long after the anti-discrimination laws were passed.
Segregation and neighborhood disinvestment
The relegation of African Americans to certain contained neighborhoods continues today. The cycle of neighborhood disinvestment followed by gentrification and dislocation of the minority has made it difficult for African Americans to establish themselves, build equity, and try to break out into suburban neighborhoods. If they have the means to relocate, the neighborhoods they relocate to are most likely populated by European American people who support open housing laws in theory, but become uncomfortable and relocate if they are faced with a rising Black population in their own neighborhood. This white flight creates an overwhelmingly African American neighborhood, and then disinvestment begins anew. All of these subtle discriminatory practices leave the metropolitan African American population with few options, forcing them to remain in disinvested neighborhoods with rising crime, gang activity, and dilapidated housing.
Neighborhood disinvestment is a systematic withdrawal of capital and neglect of public services by the city. Public services may include schools; building, street, and park maintenance; garbage collection and transportation. Absentee landlordism and mortgage redlining also characterize disinvestment. As redlining prevents households from owning, they have no choice but to rent from landlords that neglect property and charge high rent. These factors allow the devalorization cycle to occur in a neighborhood, eventually leading to the reclamation and transformation of the neighborhood, uprooting the poor residents who have no equity to use for relocation.
Following the African American neighborhood of Albina in Portland, Oregon through the 20th century shows the systematic disinvestment in the neighborhood by the city of Portland, culminating in abandonment and then gentrification of the neighborhood. The African Americans who lived there had no other designated part of the city to move to, having been relocated time and again as the city decided to tear down their dilapidated houses for redevelopment and beautification of the central city.
A deeper look into disinvestment in the community can be termed devalorization. This is when neighborhood decline is analyzed by emphasizing the profit taking of Realtors, bankers, and speculators which systematically reduces the worth or value of housing. The devalorization of a neighborhood begins to occur when the city decides to begin disinvesting in it, and the disproportionate influx of minorities shift the neighborhood from mostly live-in owners to absentee landlords. These landlords buy up the houses during white flight from the neighborhood and rent them to the minorities moving in for a high price. In Albina, this process was shown through intensive white flight from the neighborhood, and large redevelopment projects that destroyed the heart of the African American community for the remodeling of a veteran’s hospital. This project relocated many African Americans into an even smaller area, creating an overcrowded, volatile environment. Most of the community that survived did not own their homes, and the absentee landlords neglected to make repairs on their properties. The relocation of so many African Americans from southern Albina because of the hospital project caused more white flight on the northern side of Albina, creating more opportunities for landlords use the tactic of blockbusting, or using the fear of racial turnover and property value decline to convince homeowners to sell at below-market prices, allowing the landlords to then inflate the cost of the property and extort the new African American home buyers.
The next step in the downward spiral of devalorization is the redlining of the neighborhood, which decreases the percentage of ownership and usually prevents the landlords from selling their dilapidated properties. This culminates in the final step: abandonment. At this point in the Albina neighborhood, crack cocaine, gang related warfare, housing abandonment and population loss were occurring so frequently that the government finally stepped in.
It took well over 40 years of fighting from the Albina community before they were given support by the Portland government. However, the people who fought so hard to take their community back found themselves being pushed out for high rise condos and hip new stores and art galleries. The reclamation of neighborhoods creates new areas for people to move in and take over, beginning the cycle of segregation once again. When a neighborhood has become gentrified, some people that have lived there for years find themselves unable to cope with the rising costs of homes, and therefore cannot enjoy the support their neighborhood is receiving.
Once their old neighborhood has been gentrified, many of the residents are forced to relocate, if they have not already done so. When hunting for a new residence, African Americans will more than likely encounter discrimination on some level. Audits performed by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development and a later Housing Development Study suggest that if realtors have a chance to discriminate, they usually do. These studies analyzed the amount of cases where whites were given more information about available units or financing options or shown extra units in proportion to African Americans. The results showed that whites were systematically favored for both rental and sales units throughout metropolitan areas in the United States. Racial steering was also taken into account during these audits, and it was shown through the results that African Americans were shown homes in areas that had more minorities, lower home values, or lower median incomes that the homes that were shown to European Americans, even if their economic position was the same. It was shown that about one in every three encounters, African Americans were systematically steered to these non-European American neighborhoods.
This segregation is not self-imposed. That is, African Americans do not prefer to live in neighborhoods that are overwhelmingly Black. Survey evidence from a Detroit Area Survey from 1976 shows that African Americans strongly favor the desegregation of the United States, with the overall ideal neighborhood being 50% black and 50% white. Whites, on the other hand, favor neighborhood composition that is dominated by whites. In the same survey, about one-quarter of the whites surveyed said they would feel uncomfortable if their neighborhood exceeded 8% Black. Once the neighborhood reached 21% Black, almost half of the whites surveyed said they would feel uncomfortable.
- Bleeding Albina: A History of Community Disinvestment, 1940-2000 Gibson, Karen J. Transforming Anthropology, Volume 15 Number 1, 3-25 (2007)
- See: Gentrification
- see: redlining
- Redlining in Philadelphia Hiller, Amy. http://cml.upenn.edu/redlining/
- see: GI Bill
- The GI Bill http://www.livinghistoryfarm.org/farminginthe40s/life_20.html
- The Continuing Causes of Segregation Massey, Douglas, and Nancy Denton. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993.
- See: Blockbusting
- Dianne Harris, Little White House: How the Postwar Home Constructed Race in America. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.