Segregation still part of our communities

  • Elliott Hartstein

    Elliott Hartstein

 
 
Updated 2/10/2021 9:34 PM

Since it is Black History Month, I thought it timely to share some related thoughts.

A couple nights ago while clicking through possible movies to watch, I came across "A Raisin in the Sun." I knew it was a classic Sidney Poitier film, so I figured I would give it try. It is indeed a gem.

 

It is based on a play by the same name by Lorraine Hansberry, an African American playwright. It was inspired by her family's experiences living in a South Side Chicago neighborhood of overpriced, overcrowded, poorly maintained apartments in the 1950s.

The focal point of the story was the racism they faced when life insurance money from the deceased head of the household opened up an opportunity for them to purchase a home in a white neighborhood, only to have a representative from the homeowners association in that neighborhood suggest they would be better off among their own kind.

He then offered to buy the home in hopes they would not move into the white neighborhood.

After the family had many heated discussions about what to do, the film ends with them deciding to take on the challenge of moving to a better neighborhood, even though they knew they were not wanted.

Sadly, we all know this story isn't fiction. The poverty and prejudice were both there. Unfortunately, we also know both still exist today. While some of that prejudice is veiled, it can also be quite blatant.

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We saw it when we heard a candidate for president of the United States suggest that, if not reelected, suburbanites should be fearful of low-income housing and crime coming to their neighborhoods.

When Black families moved into white neighborhoods in the '50s and '60s, it led to white flight. Unscrupulous Realtors took advantage of white people's fears and got them to sell their homes below market prices. They then turned around and sold those same homes to Black people well above market value.

Since they were overpaying, they often could not afford to maintain their investments, leading to deterioration of the neighborhoods they moved into. The bottom line is that segregation in poor neighborhoods perpetuated itself. The white flight in the past based on fear of property devaluation and crime was echoed as a dog whistle in this past election.

In more recent decades, we have seen the Black community able to better their lives thanks to fair housing laws and civil rights laws. However, the Chicago area remains among the most segregated communities in America.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Though many may not realize the actual history, segregation was perpetuated significantly by government action in terms of who could get loans for housing and where that housing could be located.

As noted in the book "The Color of Law" by Richard Rothstein, FHA loans and VA loans, as a matter of policy for decades, favored home loans in all white areas, and actually created those white areas with big suburban developers.

Lenders also required strict racial segregation for those developments to supposedly insure property values. Lenders also redlined areas where concentrations of Black people lived and would not approve loans for those areas, or alternatively charged excessive interest rates in order to get a home loan.

That allowed suburban white homeowners, for years, to build wealth through equity in their homes, while Black people had been shut out of the market or charged more to get loans.

Right in our North Suburban backyard, "The Color of Law" noted other ways government participated in pushing back against a proposed integrated project in 1959. In that situation, when large numbers of community members in Deerfield came out against a project that proposed 51 houses, with a plan to sell 10 to African Americans, the park district condemned the land for park purposes, which in effect stopped the proposed integrated project.

Before the housing project had been proposed, the community had rejected a bond issue for parks on the land, but after the integrated project was put on the table, the bond issue was easily approved.

A federal court upheld the park district action, saying it was not racially motivated since they had proposed the condemnation before the project came to light.

Restrictive covenants were another method used around the country, and in our own area, to keep neighborhoods white. While handling a recent real estate purchase for a client, in reviewing docs related to the property, I came across a declaration of restrictions from 1945 for a North suburban subdivision that explicitly stated, "No persons except members of the Caucasian-Gentile race shall use or occupy any building or any residential site, except domestic servants of a different race."

Though such covenants are no longer enforceable, they were used for years to keep Black people out of many areas.

In 1968, the Fair Housing Act was passed by Congress to prohibit housing discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion and other factors, and required local governments to demonstrate that policies like zoning rules and allocation of housing subsidies didn't exclude low-income housing or contribute to furthering racial segregation.

That conceptually was a positive step, but the act did not have meaningful enforcement relating to segregation.

In 2015, the Obama administration adopted an administrative rule called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing. The regulation gave some teeth to the 1968 act by saying that a community must study its housing practices and plan to dismantle discrimination, end exclusionary zoning and build more affordable housing to qualify for federal infrastructure funding.

In August of last year, the Trump Administration repealed the AFFH rule. The Biden Administration has pledged to reinstate it, and is committed working for fair and equitable housing polices for all.

The details on the reinstatement have not yet been released by the new administration, but President Biden issued a memo to HUD to fully review the Trump Administration's actions to determine what new rules should be put in place.

Segregation is not something that is just part of history, but an ongoing problem. It has been systemic and fostered by long-standing policies rooted in prejudice. It has had a severe, cumulative economic impact on Black families and their ability to share in the dream of homeownership, access to education, jobs and neighborhood amenities that many of us take for granted.

We have seen improvements, but we still face a challenge in how to take it on. I only hope we can begin to see more progress in light of the impact that segregation has had on Black Americans throughout our nation and in our own Chicago area.

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