Discrimination in Housing - Then and Now
by Marty Poehler
I grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis - St. Paul. In the 70’s while I was on the high school cross-country team, I noticed someone’s warmup outfit on the floor. I left it there. The next day the coach Mr. Smith, who I respected, said a kid had lost his warmup outfit. Had anyone seen it? I said I saw it on the floor the day before. He said, “Why didn’t you pick it up and put it in your locker?” Thinking I was pretty smart, I quoted something I’d read in a humor magazine: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Mr. Smith said right away, “Do you have a brother?” I think I said, “Yes”- but I was ashamed. I had to think about it, and saw later that he was asking me: did I treat this student as my brother?
As I was in college I had a growing sense – from parents, teachers I respected, and spiritual leaders – that it was right to watch out for others who didn’t have as many advantages as I did. One of my managers at work said to me, “Live for others” – and that impressed me. It became important for me to treat others as my brothers and to love those I met. This of course is at the core of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Humanism. So, my thinking that this was important wasn’t unique at all. At college I studied Sociology and Political Science because I wanted to do things to help make others’ lives better, especially people who were just scraping by.
Fast forward 40 years, and today I’m a 64-year-old white businessman who’s been selling in both Northern and Southern states for about 20 years. I was in Georgia recently and a program came on NPR Radio about housing. They mentioned red-lining. I learned it’s the practice of bankers drawing a line on a map, setting it up so white people could buy homes on one side of the line, but blacks or Jews weren’t allowed to buy those homes. It also meant minority races were prohibited from buying these homes even when they were resold, as this was written into the house deeds.
This has gone on in America for decades, and became law with the National Housing Act of 1934. It was officially outlawed in the 1970’s in the Fair Housing Act. In actual fact the practice continues today. Bank officials typically give vague reasons why black potential borrowers aren’t qualified for loans for homes in desirable mostly white neighborhoods. Loan applicants in numerous locations tell similar stories of an “uphill battle with loan officers who … seemed to be fishing for a reason to say no.” 1 A study in 2018 by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, and confirmed by the Associated Press, found “this modern-day redlining persisted in 61 metro areas even when controlling for applicants’ income, loan amount and neighborhood.” 2
Our Greatest Source of Wealth
When I learned about this for the first time, I couldn’t believe my ears and I felt sick. Home ownership being passed on from one generation to the next is the greatest source of wealth, and the greatest springboard to achievement. I recently read that the average home value for whites is $132,000, while that for blacks is $9,000. 3 I realized this is partly why blacks overall are poorer than whites, and haven’t brought themselves higher from one generation to the next to the same extent that whites have.
This all hit me as wrong, and UN-AMERICAN. Why should one group of people have the chance to buy good homes that go up in value, while another group doesn’t have that chance? Why had I never heard this before in high school or college? Then I saw it was because those who practiced this were ashamed about it and didn’t want others to know about it. It was a deep, dark sick secret.
I recently talked to a couple of my friends who are white about red-lining. One of them had heard of it, and the other hadn’t and was dumfounded. Though many white people I’m sure don’t know about the present housing policy toward minorities, I feel that if the current situation became more widely understood, there are practical ways it could be addressed to make it better and fairer.
Change is Possible
The American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, introduced by Senator Elizabeth Warren in 2019, is one attempt to do this. The bill would, among other things, hold financial institutions accountable to provide access to credit for all Americans. 4 The Community Reinvestment Act was passed in the ‘70’s to reverse rampant redlining. Senator Warren says this bill is too weak. 5 If the new law she is proposing is passed, it would strengthen sanctions against institutions such as banks that don’t follow the rules. 6 The bill, if enacted into law, would give assistance to people who have historically been denied mortgages. It would give payment grants to first-time home buyers in formerly red-lined or officially segregated areas.7
It has other complex proposals, some of which I’m sure many Senators and Representatives would not vote for - such as putting a tax on wealthy Americans to pay for its provisions. The bill obviously needs changes if there will be a good chance of passing it.
We Can Be Part of the Change
Protesters in America are upset about police brutality towards blacks, and other unjust practices towards minorities - including unfair housing policies. As a white man who has been given better options for housing than minorities have been offered, now that I see things as they are – I won’t play-act that “everything is OK.” I’ll write my North Carolina Senators and Representative, and let them know that I think Senator Warren’s proposed law gives a starting point for change and should be considered, debated, and improved. I’ll keep in touch with them about this. The Pledge of Allegiance that I said as a kid, ends with “one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” Right now, that part of the Pledge rings hollow. This country – my country - cannot continue to discriminate by skin color in the crucial area of housing.