University High School
Instructor: Molly Klaisner
Redlining: The Lasting Repercussions of a Discriminatory Practice
Redlining: The Lasting Repercussions of a Discriminatory Practice
Initially arising in the 1930s, redlining is a broad term that has come to describe exclusionary or discriminatory practices in city planning or real estate. As part of the New Deal, which was implemented in 1933, a wave of government loans swept through the country, intended to reduce the Great Depression's effects. However, these loans ended up creating a whole new set of problems, the repercussions of which are still felt by many people today. After the New Deal was instituted, the U.S. government decided that there should be more discretion when giving out these loans, so they adopted the practice of outlining areas on maps which they thought to be higher risk, indicating people to whom the government should be wary when giving out loans. They color-coded the riskiest places in red, giving rise to the term "redlining." One of the most heavily redlined places was Cleveland. Matthew Lasner, an associate professor of urban studies at Hunter College, says that various factors such as home values and age affected redlining, but the most common factor was race; black people almost always lived in redlined places (Jackson). Thus, it became disproportionately more difficult for black people to acquire loans. In Cuyahoga County, for example, the loan denial rate for African Americans is about 3.4 times higher than that of white residents (Salling). Since the 1930s, however, the term redlining has also come to represent other discriminatory practices, such as real estate agents urging black buyers toward black neighborhoods, or away from white neighborhoods or wealthy neighborhoods.
Redlining is a major problem that is still very relevant today. On average, African Americans in Northeast Ohio have a loan denial rate of about 22.7%, whereas for white people it is 8.3% (Salling). Clearly, it is unfair for someone trying to acquire a loan to be refused simply because of the place where they live, which often directly ties into their race. Moreover, the Center for Disease Control has made connections between living in these neighborhoods and certain health problems. Between 1999 and 2004, black children were found to have lead in their blood 1.6 times more often than white children (Dissell). Obesity, too, is found far more often in redlined areas. These health problems are so prevalent in black populations because redlining and other racist and classist practices made it more difficult for black people or impoverished people to move up in the world, essentially barring them from safer, healthier communities. Thus, these groups were forced to concentrate in the older, more run-down parts of town, which have more lead pipes and air pollution. Between the pressing health issues and the obvious unfairness to which redlining has led, it is clear that redlining and its effects are severe problems that must be, and can be, solved. However, the solution of this issue is difficult and complicated because one can trace redlining's roots back a very long time and they are thus difficult to pull out of our society's soil. Primarily, redlining stems from government regulations while the decisions of individuals perpetuated the problem and caused it to snowball into what it is today.
Largely to blame for establishing redlining, the government laid the foundations for a racist practice. As mentioned before, redlining was part of an attempt to boost the housing market, but it actually gave rise to one of the most exclusionary practices of the time. Since neighborhoods with black or Latino populations were considered higher risk for loans, they received little money. Thus, "neighborhoods that were mixed-race or predominantly African American did not benefit from those programs" (Britannica). Northeast Ohio was no different than other parts of the country. When one compares redlining maps with maps of predominantly black or Latino areas, it is apparent that many of the victims of these practices have had difficulty finding a way out of the cycle to which they were subjected. The Federal Housing Association's further reasoning for redlining was that they believed black or Latino populations moving into white areas would lower the property value. We now know that that could not be further from the truth. African Americans moving into predominantly white neighborhoods actually raised the property value, because the housing market for African Americans was smaller, and thus they were willing to pay more (Rothstein). However, that did not matter. The government had put the cycle of redlining in motion, and these rumors struck fear into the hearts of white Americans, allowing them to create their own exclusionary practices.
One example of such discrimination comes from the environments created by white homeowners. Inevitably, many African Americans found their way around the unfair restrictions put upon them and managed to move to more suburban areas (Britannica). However, their success never lasted long, as they faced hostility, protest, and even physical violence courtesy of their neighbors. Perhaps those with the most dangerous impact, though, where those who had power and influence in their communities, such as developers. For example, one Detroit developer built a 6-foot concrete wall between a white and black community, keeping African Americans from even setting foot in suburbia. Thus, yet another barrier was added to the African American path to home ownership: even those who could buy homes could not enjoy them, as they received ridicule and torment. All in all, these causes all amounted to one main issue: the people affected by redlining became confined to areas that became poorer and poorer, more and more dilapidated, and the cycle that redlining started trapped people in neighborhoods they could never escape.
Even though the issues produced by redlining may seem intimidating and insurmountable, several existing proposals could solve these problems. However, none of these plans seem to be perfect. In 2019, Kamala Harris proposed making 100 billion dollars in down payment assistance available for people living in redlined areas, specifically individuals in government or rental housing. Similarly, Elizabeth Warren suggested taking part of estate taxes and using them to provide grants for first-time home buyers in redlined neighborhoods, intending to help with down payments (Perry). Another slightly different plan has been proposed by Pete Buttigieg, who believes the best course of action would be to buy up abandoned properties and grant them to eligible locals. However, although these plans are a step in the right direction, they still lack true acknowledgement of what redlining is. As poet Audrey Lorde said, "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house." The main problem with these plans is that they are a general fix intended to be applied to every redlined city in the country. They glance over the fact that every redlined area is different. First of all, many of these plans use the original redlining maps as their basis, assuming that those who need help are still within the areas that they lived in almost a century ago. This is problematic because many places that have severe racial and income segregation were not actually very redlined, and yet they still exemplify the effects that redlining can have. For example, Dallas, a city that has obviously grown since the 1930s, has a very small HOLC, or Home Owners' Loan Corporation, map. However, it is one of the most segregated cities in America. Not only are there clear dividing lines between areas of high and low income, but there are far more non-white people in areas of lower income and far more white people in areas of higher income (Huynh). This shows clearly that the federal government simply looking at HOLC maps and handing out grants is not enough. This important matter needs to be in the hands of state and city governments, as the situation of economic disparity is shockingly different from place to place.
Ideally, the issue of redlining should be solved with devoted, specific assistance directed toward affected communities. The previously mentioned remedies, like those introduced by Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren, provide powerful, federally funded assistance that would no doubt make change, but their solutions are far too general. Perhaps the reason for this lack of precision is that these plans are intended to be executed by the federal government. More effective may be the solutions of smaller organizations that know more about the needs of the communities affected by these problems. One such proposal is that suggested by Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit organization that wants to work toward affordable housing. Its plan outlines five main measures to be taken if we want to address the issue of redlining. First of all, the organization wants to make it easier for minorities, namely black people, to become homeowners, and it suggests several ways to accomplish this. Mainly, it wants to create programs to assist with down payments and establish more affordable housing in affected areas. Furthermore, it has observed that mortgage interest deductions, tax deductions of interest on housing-related loans, favor higher income people. Habitat for Humanity wants these mortgage interest deductions to be more accessible to lower income people ("5 Policy Solutions"). The next step in the proposal is to repair and reinvest in struggling neighborhoods. They suggest "tax credits to rehabilitate distressed homes in communities with low home value, to expand affordable homeownership for residents" ("5 Policy Solutions"). However, it is imperative that these investments be specific and designed to not raise the prices of homes in the area, as that would simply push out the people who need help. The third main point in the solution is to stop segregation, namely by improving the safety and school systems of these neighborhoods. For years, segregation has been perpetuated by exclusionary zoning, which concentrates poorer people in certain areas, which become unsafe with poor education systems. Habitat for Humanity aims to remedy this by establishing communities with diverse housing so that both low- and high-income people can live areas side-by-side. The organization believes it can accomplish this goal by reducing zoning modifications, such as minimum lot size. Their fourth suggestion in this plan is to increase availability of cheap rental housing. Federal housing choice vouchers were a tool intended to help low-income people afford humble rental housing, but they have become very scarce; only about one quarter of those needed are currently available ("5 Policy Solutions"). Habitat for Humanity wants to make these vouchers more available so that rental properties are more widely accessible. The fifth and final part of their plan is very relevant to today's world: reducing the disproportionate damage minorities have faced because of COVID-19. Because they had less stable housing situations to begin with, these populations were far more severely affected by COVID-19 and are more likely to face eviction and debt ("5 Policy Solutions"). Habitat for Humanity believes the solution to this issue lies in prevention of foreclosures and in immediate financial assistance for those facing eviction. Habitat for Humanity's plan for solving redlining is specific and rigorous, and it is clear that it wants to provide relief to those who really need it, not just general demographics. Thus, it provides what would likely be a more effective solution than those currently proposed by our government.
At first, redlining may seem like a problem that is impossible to solve. How can we rid ourselves of something so ingrained and established in our society? However, upon closer inspection, one can see that this issue has solutions, yet few steps have been taken to employ them. If we want to make redlining less of an issue in Cleveland, we must counter it with unique, specific solutions that directly address the roots of this problem: racism, classism, and discrimination. If we can just unite our city in the knowledge that redlining is a problem and that we must work together to address it, Cleveland would no doubt be a better place. We could have a balanced mixture of expensive and affordable housing, without divisions between different types of neighborhoods. With mixed neighborhoods, there would be less crime because there would not be so many areas of concentrated poverty. Furthermore, both rich and poor would have access to the same school systems, breaking the cycle of inferior education in redlined neighborhoods. As someone who has had access to safe neighborhoods and good schools, I know the importance of such things. However, we must also acknowledge that redlining is simply one obstacle in the road to social equality. To truly make our society free of discrimination, we rely on our politicians and other powerful people. If change is to be made, the powerful people in our city, state, and federal government must recognize the seriousness of these issues. When our society accepts that redlining and other social problems, which have plagued our country since its inception, are important issues which must be remedied quickly, we may finally be able to move forward into the satisfaction of change.