A more perfect union?

I said I would write more about housing in the USA following my recent coast-to-coast trip.

The events in Ferguson, Missouri have highlighted some of the racial and income issues that that underpin the US housing system. I did not go to Missouri but we travelled through several of the southern states including Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee. Many towns and cities have monuments to the Confederacy, with flowery inscriptions about the bravery of their armies and the rightness of their cause, but they make no reference to the evils of slavery.  In the grounds of the State Capitol in Austin, for example, the inscription to the fallen reads:

“Died, for state rights guaranteed under the constitution the people of the south, animated by the spirit of 1776, to preserve their rights, withdrew from the Federal compact in 1861. The North resorted to coercion. The South against overwhelming numbers and resources, fought until exhausted.”

These sentiments are repeated in hundreds on hundreds of public monuments across the South. You can see some examples here. You could argue that these are mere historical relics, without any current meaning, but they have been preserved and maintained and send an underlying message that the South was the victim in the civil war and that slavery was a matter for state rights and not the federal government. It is notable that the Spanish passed a “Historical Memory Law” in 2007 that required symbols and messages from the Franco era to be removed from public buildings and monuments, but no such law could ever be passed in the USA because the issues are still too raw.

Although the 13th amendment abolished slavery in 1865, discrimination and bigotry persisted over the next century, and persists still if you listen to those who demonstrate over the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Between 1882 and 1968 3,500 black Americans were lynched, and 5 million migrated north between 1910 and 1970. Many southern states retained explicitly racist legislation to enforce neighbourhood racial segregation. In St Louis in 1916 the local estate agents’ association promoted a ballot referendum to stop black people from moving into areas where at least 75 percent of the population was white, and vice versa. This was passed but was later overturned by the US Supreme Court, but not because it was racist but because it infringed on the rights of property owners to sell to whomever they wanted! In Levittown Pennsylvania, a huge suburb of 70,000 people built after the Second World War, the leases specfically excluded black people – “the tenant agrees not to permit the premises to be sued or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race.” You can read more about Levittown and what happened when the first black family moved in in 1957 (in the third film here.)

Many public housing projects were also segregated ghettoes, and the infamous Pruitt-Igoe scheme in St Louis was one of the very worst.

Although Civil Rights’ legislation in 1965 brought an end to discrimination based on race it still works in subtle ways. For example, the system of local government in the US helps to reinforce segregation. Municipalities have robust tax-raising powers and areas with high value properties can offer better local services. Many middle and upper class areas also enforce strict zoning ordinances that help to preserve property values, for example by prohibiting high density development and retaining single dwellings in large plots. Ferguson had a black population of just 1 percent in 1970 but it is now 67 percent black; most of its former white residents have departed for the more prosperous suburbs. Yet most Ferguson councillors are white as are more than nine in ten of its police officers. Politics has failed to keep up with demographic change and this has created a sense of political disengagement. At the last Mayoral election in Ferguson the turnout was just 12 percent.

As a result of this “white flight” Ferguson has attempted to top up its dwindling tax base with income from court fines. In recent times 21 percent of its revenue has come from traffic offences and other misdemeanours, and these have been seen as unfairly impacting upon poor black people. There is therefore an underlying level of anger about the degree to which the police are seen to penalise local people disproportionately, in order to raise funds for the local government. You can read about it here.

The mortgage market in the USA has also worked in the past to entrench segregation. The Federal Housing Administration was set up in the thirties to make it easier for lower income people to secure mortgages, but they used a zoning system to rate areas from A (the best neighbourhoods) to D (areas containing “detrimental influences in a pronounced degree, undesirable population or infiltration of it. Low percentage of home ownership, very poor maintenance and often vandalism prevail.”) These poor areas, which were overwhelmingly occupied by black Americans, were “red-lined” and anyone wanting to buy there, regardless of their personal wealth, was denied a mortgage. A study in 1959 found that only 2 percent of FHA-backed loans had gone to black Americans. More recently, in 2010, a Princeton study found that black home buyers, even when all other factors were eliminated, were more likely to be offered sub-prime loans.

Ferguson has also experienced much higher levels of repossessions than most areas in the US – 50 percent compared to a US average of 17 percent – and many repossessed properties have been bought up by investors and let to poor families.

All of these underlying factors in the way housing and local government works in the USA help to explain the anger in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere. As one protestor said, “The violence that you’re seeing, no excuse for, but… This is bigger than Michael Brown. What you are seeing is decades of injustice by these police out here.”

(This blog first appeared in Inside Housing on 11th December 2014)

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