What is abolitionist housing policy

by Emily

Visitor Question: Last night I attended my second meeting as a member of the city's community development advisory board. One woman is quite knowledgeable, and such a great spokesperson for the needs of Black residents, but I couldn't understand what she was talking about at all and was embarrassed to keep asking questions. She spoke of the need for an "abolitionist housing policy." I'm pretty sure we don't need to house a bunch of abolitionists here in the 21st century, so do you understand what this term means? I would be grateful for any clues before I have to go back next month. Thank you.

Editors Reply: Recently there has been an uptick in the use of the term abolition or abolitionist when discussing racial equity for Americans of African descent. The concept is that we have yet to fully abolish racial disparities and inequities, and sometimes there is a connotation that we have not completed the work of abolishing the after-effects of slavery.

Applying this general sense of the usage of the language, we gather that this woman is talking about a housing policy that is equitable for all races, and possibly even a policy that attempts to redress our past racial actions or unintentional mistakes that created inequities in housing.

For instance, as a member of an advisory board, it would be a good idea to understand the history and reality of redlining. In the 1930s the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and a related federal agency, the Home Owners Loan Corporation, established this practice. Starting in 1934 HOLC distributed maps rating neighborhood soundness to lenders, with the least desirable of four neighborhood types being shaded in red. These areas were described as "infiltrated" with "foreign-born, negro, or lower grade populations". These redlined neighborhoods in the nation's largest cities were almost always Black neighborhoods, although Brookings Institution research shows that redlined neighborhoods are most often not majority Black now. Based on this federal advice, local lenders either did not issue mortgages at all in the redlined areas or charged a higher interest rate.

Today the redlined neighborhoods tend to remain either depressed neighborhoods housing more than an average percentage of Black residents, or they may have "gentrified", meaning that people of higher incomes have started inhabiting the neighborhood, often pushing out ("displacing") the previous residents. For much more on the important issues of gentrification, read our page if you think this pertains to your city.

To tie this discussion back to your question, your fellow board member may have been referring to issues of mortgage access or gentrification and resulting displacement of lower-income and sometimes Black residents.

Another significant element of the history of discrimination against African-Americans in housing is the existence of racially restrictive covenants as an instrument of segregation in most American cities. A restrictive covenant is a private agreement not enforced by a government, but nonetheless binding on property owners. Racially restrictive covenants prohibited sale or rental to Black residents, and typically were imposed on land before subdivision. Sometimes even the subdivision plats themselves carried an explicit prohibition against sale to people of color. In many cities, the impact of these covenants concentrated Blacks into a few neighborhoods, severely limiting their choice. This practice occurred throughout the first half of the 20th century until it was outlawed by the Supreme Court in 1948.

The impact of this severe forced concentration of Blacks into a few areas created the conditions for both concentrated poverty in some cases and the potential for exploitation of the lower-income part of the population through white landlords and store owners in almost all cases. Because of the combination of covenants with toxic lending standards, loans for home ownership or home maintenance and upgrading were very scarce to non-existent, resulting often in a dilapidated housing stock over time. Of course when one is limited in the population of prospective home buyers, home values do not rise as quickly as in an area where a much larger number of people can look for housing.

Add to this the federal government's urban renewal policy and program, which is estimated to have displaced more than a million people, mostly black, in a misguided attempt to repair America's cities. Any financial assistance for relocation was usually grossly inadequate for allowing these folks to find suitable housing. In addition, construction of interstate highways displaced thousands more, with the added insult of cutting off neighborhoods from centers for jobs, shopping, and services, and sometimes from their parishes and friends as well. All of these injustices weigh on the minds of African-Americans.

If we fast forward to today, we still see the impacts of historic disinvestment. The physical quality of a neighborhood's housing stock does not improve instantly just because mortgages become more available or race restrictive covenants are ruled unconstitutional. Often today public services are still not as robust in the impacted neighborhoods, which further acts as a damper of housing values. Appraisers attach what we think is undue attention to neighborhood factors in their valuation, and of course when sales comparisions are used as the basis of an appraisal, this system is self-perpetuating. Lower property values even mean that in some cities and neighborhoods, lenders are unwilling to make the small size loans that cover the cost of low monetary value homes. While "steering" prospective home buyers to particular neighborhoods based on race is illegal, it still occurs. The practice of "testing," which entails sending people of different races to the same real estate agent or company to compare their treatment, shows that there is still subtle and not-so-subtle steering. Continued steering thus becomes another self-perpetuating system that reinforces segregation.

As fair housing organizations and agencies across the nation can attest, a multitude of fair housing complaints arise in any city every year. Many of these center on rental housing too. Landlords sometimes do everything they can to discourage or just outright deny renting to African-Americans. The stories often show blatant discriminatory intent. If your city even has an active place to complain about fair housing, ask them for some examples. (Cities receiving Community Development Block Grant money must designate a procedure for fair housing complaints. Ask about this in your city, since presumably your board is advisory to those charged with administering CDBG funds.)

While we cannot tell you definitively what another person means by using the term abolitionist housing policy, we hope this discussion shows you some of the discriminatory realities that your colleague on the board may want to see abolished, including mortgage discrimination, displacement because of housing rental or sale price increases, unfair appraisal and real estate industry practices, legacy continuation of poor public services in formerly redlined areas and minority neighborhoods in general, insufficient regard for the impact of government programs on minority communities, and outright discrimation in rental housing.

Click here to post comments

Join in and write your own page! It's easy to do. How? Simply click here to return to Housing Answers.

Join USEFUL COMMUNITY PLUS, which provides you monthly with short features or tips about timely topics for neighborhoods, towns and cities, community organizations, rural environments, and our international friends. Unsubscribe any time. Give it a try.