HUD’s Role in Segregating America

This is the 6th article in the Tribune’s affordable housing series. We will discuss how housing policies at every level of government segregated American cities and towns beginning with the first public housing projects built during the Great Depression.

NASHVILLE, TN – In 1954 the U.S, Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education struck down the “separate but equal” doctrine. In 1963, public schools in Alabama were integrated. But they didn’t stay that way—in Alabama or anywhere else.

Since the 1930s, the government has shaped the segregation of American cities, towns, and neighborhoods largely through housing policies. No agency has played a bigger role than the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

During the Great Depression the federal government built the first civilian public housing to ease a serious national housing shortage. “The administration constructed separate projects for African Americans, segregated building by race, or excluded African Americans entirely from developments,” wrote Richard Rothstein in “The Color of Law”.

Rothstein wrote that racialist federal policies became a pattern thereafter. The Tennessee Valley Authority, for example, built a “model’ village of 500 homes in Norris, Tennessee where a dam was being built on the Clinch River between 1933-1936. White workers could live there but African American workers were housed in a barracks. ”Negroes do not fit into the program,” said one TVA official.

To be sure, state and local authorities also played their part in segregating America. Many cities including Baltimore, Atlanta, Birmingham, Louisville, and New Orleans adopted zoning rules that enforced separate neighborhoods based on race.

A young man drinks from a Colored water urn during Jim Crow era.

Ownership covenants in post-war developments like Levittown on Long Island did not allow Blacks to buy modest two-bedroom homes, although many African American GIs could have afforded them. So while Whites could move to the suburbs, Blacks couldn’t.

Also, the Federal Housing Authority didn’t approve home loans for African Americans soldiers who returned after WW II like it did for White soldiers. The FHA wouldn’t give loans to African Americans who tried to buy homes outside their red-lined neighborhoods. The real estate industry abetted and enforced the practice for decades. (See Redlining)

Blacks could buy homes in less desirable districts, often zoned for industrial uses like North Nashville and Bordeaux. Blacks could own homes but had to live with dumps and polluting industries nearby.

Rothstein’s detailed history of racialist housing in America, debunks the thinking of good liberals like FDR and Woodrow Wilson as well as conservatives like Ronald Reagan who believed that free enterprise would solve America’s housing problems.

Blacks lived in inner city neighborhoods with lousy schools, few parks, no jobs, and high crime rates because they wanted to. In other words, African Americans deserved what they got. Rothstein argues that housing policies were to blame and he likens Blacks to European Jews who couldn’t get out of their ghettos either.

Richard Nixon, who put an end to federal investment in public housing projects, did so because they concentrated poverty and all its attendant social ills in Black neighborhoods with very low-income residents, many of them single mothers living in public housing projects.

It didn’t use to be that way. Rothstein writes that the real estate industry was successful in restricting public housing to subsidized projects for the poorest families only. They argued, then as now, that public housing was socialism and a threat to private enterprise. Actually, they got it backwards. Private enterprise is a threat to social public housing that cuts across lines of class and race, promotes equity, and invites innovative community-based solutions.

“New federal and local regulations set forth strict upper limits for families in public housing. Beginning in about 1950, many middle-class families, white and black, were forced out under these new rules, although many would have preferred to stay in the low-rise, scatter-site, and well-maintained projects that mostly characterized pre-1949 public dwellings.

This policy change, mostly complete by the late 1960s ensured that integrated pubic housing would cease to be possible,” Rothstein wrote.

Without middle-class rents to maintain them, the condition and the reputation of public housing collapsed and Rothstein said that by 1973, the changeover was mostly complete. By then, whites had moved to the suburbs, and poor Blacks moved into public housing they left behind or into high rise projects built for them in places like Chicago, New York, and St. Louis where they were not housed as much as warehoused.

The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion and national origin when selling and renting housing. Fifty years later, discrimination in housing still exists in the United States.

In conclusion, racialist housing policies were engineered since the middle of the last century. They were deliberate and widespread. They normalized discrimination while blaming the victims who, all too often, couldn’t prevail against it.