The Struggle to Finally Desegregate American Cities

The government had a plan to provide low-income housing in Baltimore by giving incentives to developers. But two years later, not a single housing unit has been built.

by Peter Moskowitz
Jan 16 2016, 2:30pm

A sign outside the Sojourner Truth homes, a US federal housing project in Detroit, Michigan. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The effects of racism can be invisible, but they're obvious if you drive around Baltimore: The center of the city is over 60 percent black, but as soon as you get into the city's northern suburbs, it's almost completely white.

This, of course, is not a fluke or an accident. The history of housing in the US is largely a history of housing segregation, but in Baltimore the phenomenon is particularly blatant, and its effects proportionately harmful. In 1910, after a black Yale Law School graduate tried to move into an all-white neighborhood, the city responded by passing a first-of-its kind ordinance that legally segregated the city block by block. The legacy of that decision persists; Baltimore is still one of the most segregated cities in America. The racial and class tension caused by this geographic division flares up regularly, as it did last spring after Freddie Gray was killed while being transported by Baltimore cops last spring.

In 1995, a lawsuit called Thompson v. US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was filed, alleging that public housing in Baltimore was unfairly (and unconstitutionally) concentrated in the city's poorest and blackest neighborhoods. After a decade of litigation, a judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in 2005; the case was settled in 2012 and HUD subsequently launched a pilot program meant to help desegregate housing in Baltimore. Unfortunately, that program has failed to do much at all. A recent Baltimore Sun investigation found that the initiative, which was meant to produce 300 units of affordable housing in racially-integrated neighborhoods each year until 2020, has produced zero after being in effect for two years.

While housing advocates saw the Thompson case as a way to move beyond Baltimore's segregated history, some are saying the struggles of this pilot program are proof there's still a long way to go before anything significant changes in the city or the country.

"People just don't want affordable housing or any of that kind of thing in Baltimore," Antero Pietila, a longtime Baltimore resident who has written a book about the city's housing segregation, told VICE. "It's just the same thing as always: race and class."

The pilot program was meant to encourage developers to set aside 10 percent of new apartments in wealthier neighborhoods (sometimes referred to as "communities of opportunity") for lower-income residents by offering those developers lower mortgage premiums and tax benefits. But so far, not one developer has taken HUD up on its offer.

"It's just economics," one developer told the Baltimore Sun.

But according to others, it's about more than just money.

"It's indicative of a larger historical problem," Pietila said. "If developers were interested, they'd make it their business to know about this kind of thing. There's really a lot of resistance to inserting poor people in market-rate neighborhoods."

That could be why nearly all new housing projects in Baltimore's suburbs are being built at market-rate prices, out of reach of the area's lower-income residents.

The pressing question, which will have answers that will reverberate beyond Baltimore, is what to do about the failed program and, subsequently, the city's continued segregation.

"We're starting doing a lot in Baltimore," Barbara Samuels, the fair housing attorney at the ACLU-Maryland told VICE. "We're probably doing more in Baltimore than in other places, but we have to overcome our legacy of segregation. But the biggest problem isn't technical or financial capacity, it's that you're working against decades of policies and entrenched attitudes."

Baltimore is undeniably segregated, but it isn't even as segregated as many other large cities in the US. By certain measures, Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia are all more segregated than Baltimore. But looking at the Maryland city's history can show us how segregation happens. In addition to the blatant laws like the one from 1910 that forced segregation block by block, there have been subtler tactics implemented in the city, as well as nationally. For more than 30 years, the Federal Housing Administration used maps to decide where to insure mortgages. Predominantly black neighborhoods were "redlined"—meaning barred from receiving insured mortgages, and many African Americans were therefore effectively prevented from owning homes. Public housing was most often restricted to neighborhoods that were already low-income. And wealthy neighborhoods took to implementing "restrictive covenants" that banned people of different races and lower incomes from moving in.

But even as those racist laws fell, segregation continued: Most US cities are now more segregated today than they were 40 years ago.

For the last few decades, a movement has been growing to actively combat segregation, which means moving low-income people from the center of cities directly into suburbs. Since the Thompson lawsuit, 10,000 Baltimore residents have been moved out to the suburbs, mainly through being given rent subsidies that enable them to pay higher rents in richer locales.

Baltimore is also one of the only cities in the country, according to experts, where several suburbs are cooperating with the city in its desegregation plans—helping figure out how to make inter-county transit better, coordinating subsidies for new housing, and planning new programs to move people from the city to the suburbs, where they'll potentially have access to new jobs and educational opportunities.

But one can't help but wonder, if the Department of Housing and Urban Development's pilot program has a hard time getting started in the city doing that much to end segregation, how will it work nationally?

"Baltimore is actually trying to do something about segregation, which is more than a lot of places," Richard Rothstein, a researcher at the Economic Policy Institute who has written extensively about segregation told VICE. "But there's still resistance. There's always resistance."

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