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Two Americas: How systemic racism through redlining impacts housing today

Posted at 11:48 AM, Nov 27, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-27 13:48:21-05

CHICAGO, Ill. -- Historical housing practices in the U.S. have put many communities of color at a disadvantage. It’s not necessarily due to individuals being racist. It’s due to housing policies nearly a century ago that still affects people of color today, otherwise known as systemic racism.

Chicago is a classic example of a city that’s still very segregated. Marketta Sims was born and raised in Chicago. She lost her mother at 14, was incarcerated for more than a decade, and upon being released, she became homeless.

“Homelessness is mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally draining,” Sims said.

Sims says she was on the streets for a year and a half.

“What’s my meal for the day? What am I going to wear? How am I going to take a bath?" Sims said. "And then people look at you like ‘oh, they just want to be lazy.' Some people actually have jobs and be actually homeless. And work like I did. I worked, and still was homeless.”

Sims joined a program through a homeless shelter, moved into transitional housing and now she lives in an apartment with her fiancé. However, it wasn’t easy. She says it took a lot of hard work and determination to get there.

“They make sure that you have to jump through all type of loopholes to get to housing,” Sims said.

To understand the disadvantages people of color face currently, we must understand what was going on in the housing realm back in the 1930s.

Kendra Freeman is the director of community engagement with the Metropolitan Planning Council in Chicago. The Metropolitan Planning Council is a planning and policy-change not-for-profit organization founded in 1934 to improve housing conditions in the city of Chicago. It was also in the 1930s that a practice called "redlining" made its way across the nation.

“Redlining was an intentional process that was used by the real estate industry and the financing industry to really color-code communities and steer where lending happened," Freeman said. "So essentially if you’re in a majority black community or community of color, typically those were colored red and rated as undesirable high-risk neighborhoods.”

Think of it as a stop light. Green meant it was a good community to invest in, blue meant it was fairly good, yellow meant you should take a step back and red was deemed hazardous. A lender or government agency was able to make decisions on who gets a mortgage and who doesn’t by looking at the maps and experts say it was a discriminatory practice based on the race and ethnicity of people who lived in a certain neighborhood.

“It’s all remarkably racist,” Dr. Robert Nelson at the University of Richmond said.

Dr. Robert Nelson is the director of Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond which has been working to develop an atlas of U.S. history. One project is called Mapping Inequality and shows how cities in the U.S. were broken up.

It wasn’t just Black communities. Other minorities were singled out as well: Syrian, Japanese, Latino, Polish, and even Jewish. Dr. Nelson says it’s important to note redlining was a federal program produced by the federal government with federal oversight and it nationalized lending practice standards.

“These are not maps that were just produced by banks that had discriminatory lending practices," Dr. Nelson said. "This is the federal government saying discriminatory racist lending policies is best practice in the industry.”

Dr. Nelson says money was channeled to white, middle-class families, causing inter-generational wealth. In other words, they were able to build wealth and pass it on as inheritance to their kids.

“Typically in America the way that you build wealth is through home ownership and real estate," Freeman said. "So when you look back to my grandfather, your grandfather and their ability to buy a home, and traditionally you get a job, buy a home, you raise a family and you build equity in that home – and you can use that equity to do things like send your kids to college or invest in a business, or help your grandchildren with a down payment for their first home.”

Even though redlining became illegal through the Fair Housing Act of 1968, Co-Executive Director Giana Baker with the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance says decades of the practice contributed to racial disparities we see now and the disinvestment in Black communities for generations is clear.

“If we take those same maps in that era that were created through the Home Owner Loans Corporation, those same communities on the west and south sides are communities where they have a rich legacy in the people who live there, but we also see that those are the communities that there are food deserts where there may not be grocery stores,” Baker said.

Baker says even she is impacted.

“In the community that I live in – which is a suburb outside of Chicago, but it is a predominantly Black suburb that has been disinvested – my house does not have the same value that it would have if I was just one neighborhood over.”

There’s no easy solution to eliminating barriers of housing for people. Baker says her organization is advocating for everyone to have equal access to affordable housing, meaning people would be able to pay their rent and still have money left over for groceries, childcare and medical expenses.

According to Freeman, the first step in American society should be shifting perceptions so people of color are seen as human beings with an equitable opportunity for housing and wealth. Then comes programs – like the one that helped Sims find housing – but what will make the most difference is a change in policy.

“We can do things to help improve conditions through programs, but if you don’t get to the core of changing policy that holds those inequities in place, then you’re not changing the problem,” Freeman said.

Changing policy is part of the work Freeman and her team is trying to do at Metropolitan Planning Council. However, she says it will take everyone to do the hard work of structural change.

“Know that housing is a human right," Sims said. "I will stand and I will fight.”