The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Repost: Redlining, Blockbusting, and Urban Renewal – Oh My!

(I’m currently scattered in a million directions, and have a son home this week for spring break!  That’s made writing nearly impossible.  So, I’m reposting something fairly provocative from last year.  Have a good weekend. -Pete)

Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic recently had a good series of blog posts about the post-WWII formation of the “ghetto” as we know it in Northern cities, and the forces that led to their creation.  According to him, a curious mix of agitated lower-middle class white ethnic violence, urban elite policies and poor federal policy created today’s inner city:

It is increasingly clear to me that white flight was not a mystical process for which we have no real explanation or understanding. White flight was the policy of our federal, state, and local government. That policy held that Americans should enjoy easy access to the cities via the automobile and live in suburbs without black people, who by their very nature degraded property and humanity.

Reading his multiple posts on the subject led me to seek out and read one of the texts he cites, Family Properties by Beryl Satter.  The book documents the experience of resegregation on Chicago’s West Side, in particular the Lawndale neighborhood, and her lawyer father’s role in trying to combat its ill effects.  She details how restrictive covenants and the mix of redlining, blockbusting and (later) urban renewal destroyed our inner cities:

In the 1930s, the U.S. appraisal industry opposed the “mixing” of the races, which it believed would cause “the decline of both the human race and of property values.” Appraisers ensured segregation through their property rating system. They ranked properties, blocks, and even whole neighborhoods according to a descending scheme of A (green), B (blue), C (yellow), and D (red). A ratings went to properties located in “homogenous” areas — ones that (in one appraiser’s words) lacked even “a single foreigner or Negro.” Properties located in neighborhoods containing Jewish residents were riskier; they were marked down to a B or C. If a neighborhood had black residents it was marked as D, or red, no matter what their social class or how small a percentage of the population they made up. These neighborhoods’ properties were appraised as worthless or likely to decline in value. In short, D areas were “redlined,” or marked as locations in which no loans should be made for either purchasing or upgrading properties.

 The FHA embraced these biases. It collected detailed maps of the present and likely future location of African Americans, and used them to determine which neighborhoods would be denied mortgage insurance. Since banks and savings and loan institutions often relied upon FHA rating maps when deciding where to grant their mortgages, the FHA’s appraisal policies meant that blacks were excluded by definition from most mortgage loans.

The FHA’s Underwriting Manual also praised restrictive covenants as “the surest protection against undesirable encroachment” of “inharmonious racial groups.” The FHA did not simply recommend the use of restrictive covenants but often insisted upon them as a condition for granting mortgage insurance….the FHA effectively standardized and nationalized the hostile but locally variable racial biases of the private housing industry.

I think a couple things are lost on most people who bemoan the condition of inner cities.  First, the conditions are a recent construct, established by the policies set forth in the last 50-70 years.  Restrictive covenants prevented blacks from moving into desirable communities; redlining by banks took away access to mortgages; urban renewal destroyed stable (if poor) communities in the name of removing blight.  Second, these policies established a perverse legacy in the minds of metro area residents, so that areas that have been touched by these policies, or even touched by the people who moved to escape them, are regarded as desperate no-man’s-lands.  They end up beyond the consciousness of a wide swath of a metro area and suffer as a result.

I’m often envious of other metro areas that don’t shoulder the burden of the troubled racial legacy that so many Rust Belt cities deal with.  Phoenix may have its share of problems as a metro area, but one reason it doesn’t have the same kind of racial disparities that a, say, Cleveland has is because it never put in the racial infrastructure.
How many neighborhoods can withstand 40 years of overcrowding due to restrictive covenants, followed by 30 years of disinvestment from redlining and blockbusting, 20 years of destruction through urban renewal, and a whole century of being viewed as a pariah?

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