Today, “geography does the work of Jim Crow laws.” That statement, from civil rights expert john a. powell in the film The House We Live In, links the state and local laws that created a postbellum racial caste system and the federal, state, and local laws that created residential segregation. The geography of where we live today has been carefully and intentionally constructed over centuries, perpetuating patterns of social and economic hierarchy based on race and nationality. Today, the average black family with an income above $75,000 lives in a higher-poverty neighborhood than the average white family with an income of less than $40,000, according to research by John Logan. Historical and continuing discrimination leave an enduring mark on the American social landscape.
Over the course of the 20th century, public policies, market practices, and individual actions codified and legitimized housing discrimination. The government gave FHA mortgage guarantees almost exclusively to white homebuyers, issued mortgage underwriting guidelines and “residential security maps” that curtailed private lending to non-white homebuyers, and implemented zoning laws and public housing and urban renewal programs based on neighborhood racial composition. Private industry worked in concert with public policy: mortgage redlining ensured loans wouldn’t be given for integrated or non-white neighborhoods, contract sales inflated home prices and cheated black homebuyers out of their equity, restrictive covenants prevented non-whites from purchasing property in white neighborhoods, and block-busting encouraged white flight. White homeowners, motivated either by racial animus or fears of declining property values, formed block associations to threaten prospective non-white buyers. Some turned to violence, including house bombings.
The Fair Housing Act of 1968, the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, and other laws made these practices illegal, but there are myriad ways in which seemingly benign or race-neutral practices continue to create or promote segregation. A realtor curates a selection of homes to show a family, steering it to certain neighborhoods. Many municipalities allow source-of-income discrimination, which permits landlords to turn away prospective tenants who pay a portion of their rent with government subsidies. Mortgage redlining persists, denying credit to certain communities, and is joined by its close cousin, predatory lending, which directs African American and Latino buyers to subprime mortgages.
Here, we present three documentary films on discrimination in the housing market that explicitly address how inequality is inscribed in the housing landscape. These films help us understand that where and how we live, often considered a matter of private, voluntary choice, is often not a choice at all.
During the summer of 1966, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Chicago Freedom Movement led a campaign against housing discrimination in Chicago, a city virulently opposed to integration. (“Swastikas bloomed in Chicago parks like misbegotten weeds,” King observed.) After months of protests, King reached an unofficial agreement with City Hall and the Chicago Real Estate Board to improve fair housing and desegregation efforts, calling off further marches. Some civil rights leaders felt betrayed by that decision, however, and went ahead with a planned march in the neighboring all-white town of Cicero. That town was the site of a large and violent 1951 riot sparked by the arrival of a black family and the 1966 murder by baseball bat of 17-year-old black student Jerome Huey.
On September 4, 1966, Robert Lucas, chairman of the Chicago chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, led approximately 300 marchers through Cicero. Black marchers were met with jeers from waiting white residents: “Everybody wants freedom” was returned with “2, 4, 6, 8, we don’t want to integrate!” More than 3,000 National Guardsmen and police officers were deployed for the day, standing between the two groups. “A barrage of rocks, bottles, and cherry bombs rained on the marchers, who picked up the missiles and hurled them back at the hecklers,” wrote the Chicago Tribune the following day. The day ended with minor injuries and more than three dozen arrests.
Cinematographer Mike Shea and his crew embedded in the march, producing this brief piece of cinema vérité. The film offers a chilling portrait of the struggle to desegregate housing.
In the postwar era, the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) was “aggressively engineering racial balance in its projects,” writes Nicholas Bloom in Public Housing That Worked. Although only NYCHA’s very first developments were racially segregated, in the prewar years internal policy favored racial steering and token integration. New York State’s Public Housing Law of 1939 barred discrimination based on a tenant’s race, nationality, or religion, long before the Sharkey-Brown-Isaacs Law of 1957 did the same for privately-owned housing in the city. In light of the city’s changing demographics — the city’s black population grew by 63 percent and the Puerto Rican population by 200 percent between 1940 and 1950, according to Bloom — and the growing stream of white families leaving public housing, “NYCHA in the immediate postwar decade developed a remarkably progressive integration program, but it did so in a very quiet way.” NYCHA’s strategic integration policy was staked on maintaining public favor: “As soon as public housing became perceived as minority housing, it lost broad political support,” notes Bloom.
This 1949 promotional film for NYCHA advertises the promises of government-built housing, posing it as an alternative to the price gouging of the private market, exemplified by the landlord who tells a prospective tenant that the apartment’s furniture (what the tenant calls, “a beat up old couch and a couple of moth-eaten chairs and a ten-cent painting!”) will be an additional $1,000, or about $10,000 in today’s dollars. However, it more forcefully presents public housing as a remedy for people legally shut out of the private market based on race, nationality, religion, family status, and other factors. “Sorry, the apartments are all gone,” a real estate agent in the film tells one man after learning his last name is Greenberg.
Integration didn’t last long in the face of white flight and changing policies on income restrictions and welfare recipients, but For the Living is a nostalgic reminder of that brief period. The closing scenes pan across the ethnically diverse names on the lobby mailboxes and show racially integrated residents’ meetings and social activities.
A new tenet of American citizenship was consecrated following World War II: homeownership. Title III of the 1944 GI Bill gave qualifying veterans (African Americans were mostly excluded) access to low-cost loans. Those loan guarantees — along with federal subsidies for highway construction (often razing inner-city neighborhoods, to boot) and residential redlining sanctioning loans primarily for new, white neighborhoods — created the segregated suburbs. White families were thus given access to affordable housing, the wealth-building of homeownership, and the resources of new communities — all the benefits of equity and upward mobility.
This 2003 documentary exposes the discriminatory institutional policies and practices that suburbanized the country. The House We Live In traces a line from now-outlawed discriminatory policies, such as FHA underwriting guidelines warning that the presence of a single non-white family could undermine home values in an entire neighborhood, to the persistently lower home values in non-white neighborhoods compared to economically similar white ones today. Interviews with Long Island residents, both white and black, who went searching for opportunity in the postwar era, contrast their experiences in Levittown, the suburb that launched a thousand suburbs, and in nearby Roosevelt, a middle-class suburb that saw disinvestment after white homeowners fled in the 1970s.
This film is an excerpt from the three-part series Race — The Power of an Illusion, which was produced by California Newsreel and aired on PBS. Debunking the (commonly held, but inaccurate) notion that race is biological, the series explains race as a social concept, looking beyond individual choices to the ways in which our institutions and policies privilege some groups at the expense of others — in particular how benefits quietly, and sometimes invisibly, accrue to white people in the US.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.