This year is the fortieth anniversary of the Fair Housing Act. As we celebrate Barack Obama’s election and the extraordinary social transformations that the civil rights movement brought us, we should also review with fresh eyes some of the divisions that remain. One of the thorniest of these is housing segregation. There is no doubt that many suburbs are less monolithically white than they used to be, and that many neighborhoods in the Deep South have integrated at faster rates than in the urban North. Overall, however, national disparities in public schools, medical care and policing all flow from the fact that residential segregation by race remains a pervasive feature of American life–and that it exists in the United States at a higher rate than in just about any other industrialized country. This, in turn, allows for–and even rationalizes–separate and very unequal public policies exacerbating the social barriers between white citizens and those in communities of color.
Geographic isolation enables a vicious circle of human devaluation: public transportation is less reliable and sometimes nonexistent in many neighborhoods marked as black; this makes it harder to be punctual in the workplace. More schools are built next to or on top of industrial waste sites in communities of color, contributing to more public health crises like asthma and lead poisoning. And banking practices are often wildly different: it is much harder to obtain a prime (rather than a subprime) mortgage in a black neighborhood than in a white one with similar income levels.
Take New York City–at once the most cosmopolitan and mixed up of metropolises. When I voted on November 4, I saw an exhilarating civic festival, with lines of good people wrapped around the block. But I spotted only one other black person in the entire crowd. Despite its generally left-leaning politics, Manhattan is one of the most residentially segregated places in the country–not just neighborhood by neighborhood but block by block and building by building. Take co-ops: unlike condominiums, rentals or straight sales (which have only a right of first refusal), co-ops can turn applicants down without ever disclosing a reason and are by their structure immune to fair-housing testers. For years, organizations like the Anti-Discrimination Center in New York have been trying to get the City Council to hold hearings on a bill that would require such disclosure. Although almost two-thirds of cooperative apartment owners support it, the bill languished until just months ago, when the City Council advanced a new version requiring zero disclosure and shifting rule-making authority from the City Council alone to a process of “consultation with…the cooperative apartment industry.”
It’s a tad contradictory: on the one hand, New York City has one of the more comprehensive antidiscrimination laws around, in addition to federal and state laws prohibiting discrimination based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, marital status or disability. There is also a city law covering source of income, occupation, sexual orientation, marital status, alienage, citizenship status or “persons with whom children are, may be or would be residing.” On the other hand, the institutionalized obstacles presented by the real estate industry keep us as far apart as ever. One of the reasons “occupation” is included in the above list is to prevent not just the obvious but also the kind of scenario whereby a landlord uses an applicant’s job as a cover, as in: It’s not that she’s black or a woman. It’s that she’s a lawyer.
From 2006 to 2007, the number of mortgages to black borrowers in New York fell by 44 percent and to Hispanics by 34 percent. The numbers remained more or less the same for white and Asian borrowers. One should not assume that this decline was because black and Hispanic borrowers didn’t deserve loans. Here’s the deeper story: black and Hispanic populations tend to be concentrated in neighborhoods where they are more likely to be served only by subprime lenders–many of which have gone out of business in the past few years. In addition, when housing prices fall, they tend to fall first in minority neighborhoods; hence, more people in those neighborhoods have been hurt by the value of their homes dropping below the amount they owe.
Then there is the matter of straightforward discriminatory lending practices, like redlining, by prime and subprime lenders alike. And as I mentioned in my previous column, one of the least reported aspects of the Bush administration’s horror show was a federal lawsuit that blocked New York State from investigating discriminatory mortgage lending. Even in its final days, the administration seems determined to crush the possibility of regulation in any arena whatsoever. The original emergency bailout provisions, for example, gave the treasury secretary broad powers to suspend public laws–including the Fair Housing Act.
In view of the entrenched global crises facing the new president, reversing the fallout from some of this must, like the election, begin with us. We often fight the good fight as though it exists on a battlefield far, far away rather than in our own backyards. And so, dear Nation reader, on the dawn of our spanking-new era of optimism, a good starting point might be to ask ourselves, How financially integrated are our neighborhoods? Do we have any black or Latino neighbors? Does our building have wheelchair access? Have we thought about the “steering” tendencies of realtors that might allow one’s building to be labeled “singles-friendly”–does that mean no children or no elderly? Does it include veterans? Does “family-friendly” include openly gay families? Is our notion of religious diversity limited to Judeo-Christian? Does one’s “international” neighborhood include Muslims or Hindi speakers or Mexican immigrants?
As an old civil rights maxim puts it: “In the South you can come as close as you like, but know your place. In the North, you can rise as high as you like, but just don’t come near.” It’s time we Americans challenged the limits of our assigned “place” in society as well as the biases that keep us from drawing near enough to know how much of a collective vision we truly share.