As I watched the accounts of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, this month from a distant perch in DC, I’ve been asking myself whether different housing policy over the past decades could have averted some of this tragedy and unrest. Had we built more inclusive communities in America, would things be different? The immediate and pressing issues of racial justice and public safety quite reasonably dominate the public discourse right now. But as we think on all that has transpired, we should take the events in Ferguson as a call to avoid the mistakes of past housing policy and build inclusive, rather than segregated and polarized, communities and make housing a pathway to the middle class.
Policy decisions at the local, state and federal level shape where and how we live. The patterns of housing we see in Ferguson (and Grosse Pointe and Boston and Atlanta and elsewhere) emerged from many years of government and private actions that encouraged segregation by race and by wealth. The Federal Housing Administration’s explicit redlining excluded African-Americans from financing homes in many communities, effectively forcing them elsewhere. Some local policies were brutal and explicit, others were subtle and implicit, and some persist today (see James Loewen’s database of “sundown towns” for examples). Segregated communities emerged from years of pressure exerted politically and economically on the housing choices of Americans.
Housing is also part of how American families build wealth and enter the middle class. But in the most recent foreclosure crisis and ensuing recession, African-American and Hispanic households were hit hardest. Between 2005 and 2009, median net worth for White households fell from $134,992 to $113,149. That’s 16 percent. For African-American households, it fell from $12,124 to $5,677. That’s 53 percent. And for Hispanic households, it fell from $18,359 to $6,325. That’s 66 percent.
Housing is only one dimension of the current problems—our country needs to engage squarely with the issue of race and racism in many areas. But there are housing policy steps that can move America in the right direction. We can help localities find ways to build communities that welcome people of all backgrounds and income levels and let them live near where they work and study. We can make sure our mortgage finance rules don’t exclude low-wealth families from the best financing. We can replace the current patchwork with a durable housing finance system that provides opportunity to all.
But most of all, we need to acknowledge that the neighborhoods of entrenched poverty and racial segregation are neither inevitable nor acceptable. Our collective choices—as households, governments and institutions—created these neighborhoods, and our future collective choices can change them for the better.