Addressing Residential Segregation: A Path to Equality

Residential Segregation and Civil Rights Housing

When the Fair Housing Act landed on President Johnson’s desk in 1966, it was hailed as both an antidote to rampant segregation and a path from the ghetto to middle class. But uneven enforcement and the bill’s flaws allowed bigoted mortgage bankers to preserve – and profit from – discrimination.

Residential Segregation

Residential segregation is the root of the opportunity gap between blacks and whites that persists today. It is largely driven by government policies and programs, including housing and lending discrimination, exclusionary land use planning, public housing location and siting, and the allocation of low-income rental subsidies.

For example, from the 1920s through the 1960s, developers could sell or finance homes with restrictive covenants that forbade their resale to African Americans and restricted racial integration in surrounding neighborhoods. This was not an act of rogue bureaucrats; it was explicitly written out in federal policy manuals distributed to appraisers nationwide.

While explicit racial discrimination was eliminated by the Fair Housing Act of 1968, it was replaced by more subtle forms of residential segregation that have persisted to this day. Government at all levels should work to address contemporary residential economic segregation that disproportionately harms black people by curbing exclusionary zoning, funding disparate impact litigation, supporting inclusionary zoning, banning source of income discrimination in mortgage financing, and beefing up housing mobility programs.

Public Housing Segregation

As the federal Fair Housing Act was being debated in Congress in the early 1980s, the Dallas Morning News investigated public housing in 47 cities and found that, with the exception of a few projects, most were still segregated by race. White projects generally had superior facilities, amenities and services in comparison to their black counterparts.

Local zoning rules, neighborhood improvement associations and real estate practices all became tools of residential racial segregation. For instance, builders of new suburban neighborhoods often imposed racially restrictive covenants on homes in their development, preventing buyers from selling their homes to African Americans.

Many local officials also endorsed the practice of “redlining,” refusing to insure mortgages for houses in neighborhoods where African American families lived, or who lived close to businesses that could be viewed as a nuisance by the white community. In addition, federal public housing policies that gave PHAs the power to decide where to locate their projects influenced racial segregation by fostering ghettoization of these developments.

Commercial Segregation

Black neighborhoods often lack even the most basic commercial services, such as drug stores and auto repair shops. Such isolation contributes to higher poverty levels and less economic mobility among African Americans. In addition, local and state zoning rules and federal mortgage lending policies further promote residential segregation in urban communities.

As white flight accelerated after the civil rights movement, racial segregation in suburban areas began to grow rapidly. In 1950, 94% of suburban residents were white, and in cities the figure was 90%. The expansion of ghetto neighborhoods caused by mass black migration further exacerbated this trend, creating new geographic patterns of neighborhood dissimilarity and isolation.

The Federal Housing Administration subsidized builders to create entire subdivisions that were “white-only,” and it refused to insure mortgages for houses sold to African-American buyers, a policy known as redlining. When a builder wanted to construct a subdivision in Detroit, for example, the FHA demanded that he build a six-foot high concrete wall between the development and a nearby black neighborhood to ensure that his new houses would remain racially segregated (Rothstein 1988). As a result, racial dissimilarity and isolation in urban communities became ever more extreme.

Transportation Segregation

Since the 1960s, research has made clear that racially segregated neighborhoods are the largest source of inequality for African Americans. But a major gap persists in the public discussion about how to address the problem. Too often, progressive policymakers focus on housing affordability without considering the impact of residential segregation—segregation that government officials engineered and that continues to permeate America’s communities today.

Segregation has a profound effect on many aspects of life. For example, it contributes to the achievement gap in education by separating students from the social and economic conditions that improve academic performance. It also separates workers from jobs by making it harder for them to get to work, especially in outer suburban areas and around airports.

It also contributes to the isolation of people with criminal legal system involvement by restricting their access to federally subsidized housing. And it ties together disparities in police-community relations, highlighted by the tragedy of Baltimore and other cities.

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