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Black History Month conversation must include housing

As we celebrate Black History Month – and continue our work to eliminate racial disparities in housing – it’s important we understand why our communities haven’t built enough affordable housing over many decades and why they continue to be segregated.

Both of these realities are the result of local, state and federal housing policies rooted in racism. These policies mandated segregation – and they were promoted by communities across the U.S., including right here in West Michigan.

One of these policies made homeownership incredibly difficult for Black families. Starting in the 1930s and lasting for decades, many banks denied mortgages to people of color, preventing them from buying a home in certain neighborhoods or getting a loan to renovate their house. The practice – known as redlining – was backed by the U.S. government and it laid the foundation for the segregated communities and neighborhoods we still see today across West Michigan.

As the Federal Housing Administration refused to insure mortgages in and near neighborhoods that were home to mostly Black families, it subsidized builders who mass-produced subdivisions of single-family homes for white households – and required none of the homes be sold to Black families.

Even after Congress in 1968 passed the Fair Housing Act, which outlawed redlining, local governments continued to segregate communities – this time through “enhanced” zoning requirements. While not overtly racist like redlining, these zoning requirements separated land uses from one another, prioritized single-family homes over all other types of housing and separated residents by race.

Getting a mortgage remained a huge hurdle for Black families for much of the 20th century due to discriminatory lending practices. Also, by making neighborhoods single-family only, local communities excluded nearly every household who couldn’t get approved for a mortgage.

After the Civil Rights era, local governments started a decades-long pattern of disinvestment in the most diverse neighborhoods across West Michigan. Even after the federal government stopped its practice of racial discrimination in housing, the downward trajectory of property values had already begun and most families who could, continued to leave these urban neighborhoods in search of communities where property values were more stable.

Evidence of redlining dots our communities

Fast forward to today, and the impact of these racist and segregationist policies still lingers across West Michigan. Our communities continue to be segregated – as evidenced by only 2% of Ottawa County’s residents identifying as Black. Single-family housing remains the top priority – and something that’s still out of reach for many Black families. For example, only 37% of Black households in Grand Rapids own a home compared to 77% of white households.

Black applicants are more likely to receive subprime loans than whites – even if they have the same financial background. These loans have higher interest rates and bigger payments – both of which make it more difficult for borrowers to pay down their debt and build up their savings.

Nationally, 60% of Black households spend more than 30% of their income on housing – considered insecurely housed on the housing stability spectrum. That’s compared to only 36% of white households who are insecurely housed.

According to KConnect, nearly 1 in 6 Black children in Kent County accessed the homeless system in 2019 compared to 1 in 130 white children. Black residents made up 12% of Kent County’s total population and 72% of individuals experiencing homelessness, including children.

These startling statistics show the staying power of the housing policies and zoning requirements of the 20th century – and the devastating impact on generations of Black families who have been denied the opportunity to live and raise their children where they want.

It’s time to understand – and act

They’re also why we’re working to eliminate racial disparities in housing. Our work is grounded in the belief that access to opportunity and greater housing availability results in more equitable outcomes in our communities. Ensuring communities have enough housing at all price points results in greater economic stability, better health and greater access to quality education for all residents.

All people, regardless of where they live, deserve a quality home they can afford, and our ZIP code should not determine the trajectory of our lives.

Long after we flip the calendar to March and 2021 Black History Month celebrations are over, we’ll continue to work with local governments, developers and nonprofits to remove barriers to housing availability and housing affordability for our neighbors. We hope you’ll join us.

We also encourage you to learn more about redlining and its impact on our communities by reading Richard Rothstein’s book “The Color of Law.” Check your local library or favorite bookstore for a copy of this must-read book.

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