Atticus is the CEO of PadSplit, an affordable, shared housing model that creates financial independence for workers.
If you ask a person of color, they’ll likely tell you they’ve been unjustifiably pulled over while driving. We hear this example often when discussing racism in our society, and it’s for good reason. Not only are there countless anecdotes to rely upon, there’s a tremendous amount of data to examine. In the book Suspect Citizens, which analyzed more than 20 million traffic stops, the authors reported that Black drivers were twice as likely to be pulled over as white drivers, even though Black individuals did not drive as often.
As a white male, I can say that I haven’t been needlessly pulled over while driving, nor have I been the victim of racism in any way, shape or form. I acknowledge that systemic racism exists in our society, however, and I believe it’s important to be an ally and anti-racist to enact change.
As the founder of an affordable housing startup that’s based in Atlanta, I’ve learned that unfortunately, much like other policies across the country, the evolution of housing policy has both implicit and explicit racial bias. While racial segregation was seemingly addressed by the Supreme Court in 1917 and 1948, and by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968, racism undoubtedly persists today in zoning and housing laws. It may not be as easy to see when compared to the criminal justice system, but it’s still insidiously there, hidden in a patchwork of nuanced zoning definitions and regulations. These are policies that evolved over time to meet federal guidelines against explicit discrimination, so they are technically legal today, yet they still contribute to racial inequality.
The Ugly History Of Explicit Racism In Housing Policies
Zoning laws in the U.S. originated in the early 20th century, and for many cities, these zoned areas were specifically segregated by race. Uses that were undesirable or more industrial in nature were often constrained to areas for only racial or ethnic minorities.
In 1917, the Supreme Court ruled in Buchanan v. Warley that race-based zoning was unconstitutional, so cities began relocating segregated schools instead. School segregation would still be legal for several more decades, and moving the schools to undesirable areas forced Black families to live close by them, creating de-facto zoning segregation in the process.
When Black war veterans returned from World War II, the Federal Housing Administration did not allow them to obtain mortgages. Despite fighting — and in many cases, dying — to support the U.S. mission, Black soldiers were explicitly discriminated against because they were viewed by banks and the federal government as “higher risk” loans. In order to obtain federal funding, local developers were required to include in their codes a refusal to sell to people of color. These policies changed in the 1960s, but by then the damage had been done. The homeownership boom, spurred by the federal government to boost the economy, deliberately and unconscionably prevented Black homeownership and thus prevented generational wealth or class mobility to take place as it would for white America.
How Racism In Housing Exists Implicitly Today
We still live with vestiges of these policies today, as accumulated wealth in real estate has appreciated and been passed from generation to generation. As importantly, many of our zoning laws that prohibit multifamily buildings, require minimum square footages or restrict the number of unrelated people per home carry on these systemic inequities and continue to segregate cities and neighborhoods based on income and race while preventing historically marginalized populations from ascending the housing ladder.
Consider the example that we see here in Atlanta: Often referred to as an equalizer city for Black households, the reality is that Atlanta ranks first in the U.S. for income inequality.
Why? There’s no question that Atlanta suffers from the same systemic inequity that every other city does, except that we’ve also layered on some of the country’s longest commute times with limited access to public transportation and a gentrifying urban core. The result has been that Black households with lower incomes that were intentionally prevented from receiving mortgages decades earlier to build up class wealth have now been disproportionately pushed into the suburbs and exurbs. They have had to drive to where housing is affordable, and the resulting long commutes have created even greater financial instability. So it shouldn’t be surprising that affordable housing options close to the urban core, jobs and public transportation have seen very high demand.
At the same time, zoning laws rooted in racist land-use policies continue to place constraints on the number of unrelated individuals who can live together, and limit the amount of multifamily housing that can be built in certain neighborhoods. These laws continue to keep low-income people of color out of higher income, lower density housing — and farther away from work, school and opportunity — preventing them from accruing generational wealth in the first place.
Systemic Racism In Housing Is A Major Issue
As we see the historic protests decrying racial inequality in our criminal justice system, I write this article to call attention to the fact that systemic racism exists in our housing policies as well.
According to an Economic Policy Institute study, the median white household has 12 times more wealth than the median Black household, and more than 1 in 4 Black households have zero or negative net worth; that’s compared to less than 1 in 10 for white families. As the study succinctly demonstrates, in a country where housing equity makes up about two-thirds of median household wealth, “the racial wealth gap is primarily a housing wealth gap.”
Black lives matter, and Black livelihood also matters. The implicit racism in our housing policies only underscores growing socioeconomic issues and further barriers to achieve economic prosperity. We must illuminate these issues and enact changes now if we’re really serious about leveling the playing field and creating a system of equal access to economic opportunity.
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