Even though some explicitly racist housing policies have been eliminated, the effects of past discrimination, such as redlining, remain and continue to affect Black and Brown neighborhoods, resulting in lower home values and overall long-term disinvestment in these communities.
“People blame external factors like education, crime, and safety for lower [home] values,” said Andre Perry, senior fellow, Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. “[But] we controlled for every fancy Zillow metric and found that homes in Black neighborhoods are undervalued.”
“As long as public policies are yoked to a sector that from its inception has conjured and maintained racist practices to build value into the market, we’ll continue to see … these problems persist,” said Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, assistant professor of African-American Studies at Princeton University.
Perry and Taylor were keynote panelists among experts from across the country and across sectors to discuss structural racism in our housing system and its effect on economic outcomes for all Americans.
The Racism and the Economy series, sponsored by all 12 Federal Reserve Banks, examines structural racism, its impacts, and ways to dismantle it.
Investing in Black communities
The March 1 conference focused on how racism, racial exclusion, and predatory practices have limited housing opportunities and wealth-building for communities of color.
For Perry and Taylor, the impacts of policies rooted in segregation are a key driver of systemic damage to Black neighborhoods and communities.
Another part of the problem is a lack of understanding about why these conditions exist in the first place. “Most people just don’t know anything about redlining or Reconstruction,” said Perry. “People don’t know the extent to which discrimination has played a role in the material well-being of Black people.”
Perry also pointed to a “zero-sum” mentality: that investment in Black communities comes at a cost to everyone else. In reality, everyone loses from the underinvestment in Black communities.
“The truth is that ignorance is not the whole answer here,” agreed Taylor, who noted that there are some who benefit from inequities in the housing system. “There’s a business model that has been profiting off this, even though we’ve been talking about this for 100+ years.”
Systemic racism clearly limits housing and wealth-building opportunities for communities of color, but what can policymakers do about it? Three leaders from across the country shared their policy ideas in a panel moderated by Marketplace reporter Amy Scott.
- Abolish single-family zoning to expand housing supply: Scott Wiener, California state senator, pointed to single-family zoning as an instrument of racial and income segregation. Prohibiting other types of structures in single-family zoned areas limits one housing unit per parcel, effectively putting a cap on housing supply. “We can’t accommodate our growing population without addressing supply issues and the ban on apartment buildings, particularly in large metro areas,” said Wiener. Exclusionary single-family zoning policies also reduce economic opportunity by restricting access to job-rich areas.
- Eliminate systemic racism in the appraisal industry: Junia Howell, assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said that land and home values are inherently racialized; that is, values are contingent upon a property’s utility to White needs. Data consistently show that homes in Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities are appraised at lower values relative to those in White communities. A prime historical example of this racialization of property value was the justification for seizing of “worthless” Native lands by White settlers. One way of reducing systemic racism in appraisals is by basing home values on how much it costs in natural resources to build and maintain them. Howell also suggested a re-evaluation of the secondary mortgage market, reparations, and lower interest rates that benefit historically disinvested communities as additional means to increase racial equity.
- Offer restorative housing reparations: Robin Rue Simmons, an alderman on the Evanston, Illinois, city council, reviewed their ongoing work to pass and implement the first municipal housing reparations program. A law passed in November 2019 appropriates tax dollars from cannabis sales to fund reparations, as a direct response to evidence of overpolicing related to marijuana arrests in Evanston’s Black community. The policy outlines a $25,000 direct housing benefit for people who either descended from or lived as residents of Evanston from 1919-1969. “We understand that the benefit alone will not be enough,” said Simmons, “but we are working hard to find a financial partner that can help provide fair mortgage products and fair financial products so we can make the most of this.”
A panel of respondents offered feedback on the proposals. Bambie Hayes-Brown, president and CEO of Georgia ACT, said it is essential that people with lived experience of housing instability are included in developing and implementing solutions. Priscilla Almodovar, president and CEO of Enterprise Community Partners, emphasized the importance of including renters in housing and zoning solutions, as many are in the homeownership pipeline. Finally, Bill Rogers, president and COO of Truist Bank, said the Fed can play a prominent role in advancing these and other ideas through advocacy and its enforcement of the Community Reinvestment Act.
Why housing equity matters to the Fed
The presidents of the Atlanta, Cleveland, and Minneapolis Feds all pointed to the importance of multifaceted solutions to address deeply embedded racial inequities in housing and improve the economic well-being of communities of color.
One of the key roles the Fed plays in the nation’s economy is through banking supervision. Atlanta Fed President Raphael Bostic considered the enforcement options the Fed has through this function. “I’m working hard with our banking partners to pay attention to what isn’t working for low-income people,” Bostic said. “It’s no surprise there are predatory products in low-income communities.”
Cleveland Fed President Loretta Mester emphasized the role of Community Reinvestment Act implementation and the importance of longer-term investment in people and in disadvantaged communities. Mester also highlighted the importance of addressing the wealth gap through the earnings gap. “This comes back to housing,” Mester said. “If you have housing stability, you’re much more likely to have access to college and better schooling to get you to college,” ultimately resulting in better employment outcomes and an increased ability to acquire housing.
While there are ways for the Fed to contribute directly, there are also opportunities for it to “bring attention to the issue and [help] policymakers understand their choices,” Minneapolis Fed President Neel Kashkari said. “We can play a role as a convener and communicator.”
“Our measure of success is to what extent are we lifting up practices and policies that work,” said Bostic. “Many of the things you’ve heard are not our decisions. But are we doing what we can to inform those decisions? This took decades to occur. It’s going to take some time for it to reverse.”