A cascade of crises is forcing America to confront the racism of its past and present—from overt acts of hate to subtler injustices that shape our society. Over 16 weeks, City Limits and Enterprise Community Partners will feature prominent New Yorkers’ views on how race and housing policy intersect to create a legacy each of us must confront, and the way forward we should take together. These are not necessarily views we endorse. But they are views we fully believe are important to share with each other.
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Today marks exactly 50 years since the debate over the Fair Housing Act began in Congress. This bill would eventually pass in 1968 as part of the Civil Rights Act, but many would argue it has never been fully implemented as cities nationwide, including New York, remain incredibly segregated by race and class. Now, with racial divides by many measures getting worse and not better, it is more important than ever to have honest discussions about how we arrived at this point in order to know how to move forward, and to consider how privilege and bias wrapped in racism continue to play a role in shaping the communities we call home.
Housing policy in the United States is not race-neutral. For decades we intentionally and consistently diverted resources from communities based on race at huge cost to people and our society at large—and we continue to see effects of that disinvestment today. In the 1930s, “redlining” was adopted as a legal way to determine which neighborhoods could access government-backed mortgages and many other kinds of investment. This policy cut off capital from people of color who wanted to own homes or live in rental housing in safe neighborhoods connected to schools, health care, parks and employment opportunities. It had devastating effects nationwide, perhaps nowhere more prevalent than in New York City in the 1970s and early 1980s, where entire neighborhoods were devastated, forcing many residents to leave stretches of city blocks largely abandoned.
It was during this time that I had the privilege to begin working as a community organizer with the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC). It was a very challenging time for the residents of the Bronx. Building owners were cutting back on fuel deliveries, leaving buildings without heat and hot water in the middle of cold winters. Crime increased, streets became dirtier and less maintained, and parks fell into disrepair because of an overall disinvestment of resources by both the public sector and the private sector. Much of our initial work focused on getting tenants together to fight for basic repairs and services in exchange for the rent they were paying.
As banks and the city adopted policies that devalued the future of the Bronx, the overt and visible nature of these practices helped mobilize communities to fight for reinvestment. When we found that banks were selling off their mortgages on local properties for very little value, NWBCCC worked with others around the country to advocate for the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act, which became law in 1975 and forced banks to disclose where they were investing by census tract around the country. But that victory only made the discrimination more clear: local savings banks, which earned the bulk of their deposits from the Bronx, were taking those assets and investing in other parts of the country. As soon as households of color became the majority in certain neighborhoods, those neighborhoods were redlined by banks equally disinvested by the public sector. Traditional mortgages for potential home buyers were unavailable and forms of predatory lending were often all that was available to people of color and in redlined neighborhoods.
We again organized with communities nationwide to push for the Community Reinvestment Act in 1979, which put the responsibility on banks to invest in the communities from which they received deposits. This policy, along with the creation of the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit in 1986, helped bring incredible amounts of public and private investment back into neighborhoods that would otherwise be unrecognizable today.
Beginning in 1978, the Koch administration made a tremendous capital commitment to rebuilding New York’s neighborhoods. Abandoned city-owned properties were targeted for redevelopment and, because the federal government had cut back all federal resources for housing and community development, New York committed more city capital to housing development than the next 50 largest American cities combined. Every city administration since has continued investing capital funds in housing and community development.
Jim Rouse, a well-known developer and founder of Enterprise, asked in one of his speeches in 1988, “If a neighborhood is badly deteriorated and the people abandoned it, if people are living in miserable housing with 30-40 percent jobless, limited health care and limited human services, we need to go into that neighborhood and ask ourselves what it would be like if it worked.” New York grappled with how to rebuild what was allowed to fail and whether there was the will to build back our neighborhoods and connect low-income households to opportunity.
The physical development in New York’s neighborhoods over the last 30 years has been remarkable. But despite this progress, low-income communities of color—the families who were restricted access to good homes and communities in the past—continue to struggle because of the effects of redlining and other historic policies that intentionally created the unequal system we still strive to correct today.
Gentrification has changed New York’s neighborhoods and helped make them attractive for higher income households—but at the same time, it threatens affordability and makes it difficult for low-income families to find a decent home in a good neighborhood. Over one third of very low income households—many of them families of color—pay more than 50% of their income for housing costs.
Now, with more information about where capital is invested, regulations requiring financial institutions to reinvest in communities, and legislation that requires the city to examine how to really create “fair housing,” we must focus on comprehensively rebuilding New York’s neighborhoods. It is our responsibility to center the people and communities who have been most affected in doing this essential work, and to listen to the hopes and expectations of residents looking for a better future for their families.
Jim Rouse concluded his speech by saying, “We can’t accept life as it is in this country. It has got to change. And it has got to be changed radically, by us.” This is as true today as it was in 1988.
Our housing history is marred by structural policies and regulations which were allowed and encouraged to tear our communities apart. After decades of work to rebuild neighborhoods and the trust of the people who call them home, we must acknowledge that we are still affected by and damaged by that history, and that low-income communities of color continue to bear the brunt of its assault. It will take the resources and expertise of the public and private sectors, the community development industry, and everyday New Yorkers to finish our work making this city safe, affordable and just to everyone who calls it home.
Bill Frey currently serves as a Senior Director and is the founding executive director for the New York office of Enterprise Community Partners, Inc., a national organization that creates, preserves and advocates for affordable housing linked to good schools, jobs, transit and health care.