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The History of Land and Power in the United States

The History of Land and Power in the United States

1619-1865

US Slavery

US Slavery– The ownership and enslavement of people of African descent was legal on US soil until the ratification of the 13th amendment abolishing slavery.

1843

Racially Restrictive Covenants

Racially Restrictive Covenants– Holden Farm in Brookline, MA is considered the first known property in the US to include a clause in the deed that stated it could not be sold to, “Negro or native of Ireland.” Because this language was included in the deed itself, it applied to all subsequent sales and resales of the homes, not just to the original buyers (Elton, 2020).

Racially Restrictive Covenants became a very popular practice across the whole country. During the twentieth century, racially restrictive deeds were a ubiquitous part of real estate transactions. Covenants were embedded in property deeds all over the country to keep people who were not white from buying or even occupying the land.

Though covenants were everywhere, they did mutate over space and time. Those authored in the first years of the twentieth century have a different flavor than those recorded after World War II. The racial preoccupations of developers in Washington state were different from those of North Carolina. But all of these documents were blunt. For example, one common Minneapolis covenant reads: “the said premises shall not at any time be sold, conveyed, leased, or sublet, or occupied by any person or persons who are not full bloods of the so-called Caucasian or White race.” (University of Minnesota, Mapping Prejudice Project).

1865

40 Acres and a Mule

40 Acres and a Mule, a revolutionary policy that was the first attempt at providing reparations to former slaves. General William Sherman met with 20 leaders of the African American community and agreed on land distribution.

1867

Sharecropping and the Reversal of 40 Acres and a Mule

Sharecropping and the Reversal of 40 Acres and a Mule: After Lincoln was assassinated President Johnson reversed the 40 Acres and Mule policy, giving the land back to former Confederate owners. This left African Americans with few choices but to become sharecroppers. In many sharecropping cases, the landlords or nearby merchants would lease equipment to the renters and offer seed, fertilizer, food, and other items on credit until the harvest season. At that time, the tenant and landlord or merchant would settle, figuring out who owed whom and how much.

High interest rates, unpredictable harvests, and unscrupulous landlords and merchants often kept tenant farm families severely indebted, requiring the debt to be carried over until the next year or the next. Laws favoring landowners made it difficult or even illegal for sharecroppers to sell their crops to others besides their landlord, or even prevented sharecroppers from moving if they were indebted to their landlord (Henry Louis Gates, Jr.).

1900

Introduction of Zoning Laws in the US

Introduction of Zoning Laws in the US– Zoning launched a revolution on land use in the United States. Cities began using planning and regulation to separate residential areas from the pollution and nuisances of industrial areas. The power for cities to regulate height, area, location, and use of a building became the norm across the country.

1910

Zoning by Race

Zoning by Race– Zoning became a politically sanctioned tool to segregate neighborhoods. Baltimore, Maryland adopted the first racial zoning code, banning African Americans from living in designated white neighborhoods. In other cities such as San Francisco, the racial zoning was less explicit but had the same results. For example, they enacted zoning ordinances that directly targeted laundry businesses, and the majority of laundry businesses at that time were Chinese-owned.

1917

Buchanan v. Warley

Buchanan v. Warley– the United States Supreme Court declared racially biased zoning unconstitutional. The Buchanan decision marked a victory in the battle against racial segregation; however, it focused only on upholding property rights, not affirming equal protection under the law. Buchanan only applied to legal statutes, not private agreements, and as a result, racially restrictive covenants became a common practice.

1926

Municipal Control of Zoning

Municipal Control of Zoning– The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that municipal zoning regulations in Euclid, Ohio are constitutional. This landmark case paved the way for municipal control of zoning. The policy’s exclusionary aspects helped drive rapid adoption and it soon becomes standard. Many U.S. cities eventually zoned 75 percent or more of their residential land for single-family homes.

In Massachusetts, suburbs were finding other ways to keep their towns the way they liked them, white. Thanks to the state legislature’s 1966 passage of the “home rule” law, individual municipalities gained much greater control over zoning policy than exists in many other U.S. metropolitan areas and passed exclusionary rules that required large lots and prohibited multi-family housing. These policies effectively did the job that racial covenants had done before them: They ensured through zoning that homes would be out of the financial reach of people of color who had not benefited from decades of wealth building through home equity, says former state Representative Byron Rushing (Elton, 2020).

1934

Redlining

Redlining– Under FDR’s New Deal the Federal government launched the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). The FHA was created as a solution to the poor loan and financial practices that led to the inflated housing bubble that burst during the Great Depression. The New Deal sought to regulate mortgage lending and open the door to lower-income Americans to become homeowners. These new lending systems positively changed the lives of many Americans, with the exception of African Americans and communities of color, as they were systemically excluded from this new wealth-building opportunity.

The FHA endorsed the practice of redlining. Redlining is the practice of denying federal loans to neighborhoods based on racial demographics. While lower and middle-class white Americans were able to drastically improve their lives by homeownership, wealth building, community resources, health, and quality of life. African Americans were left few choices but risky mortgage loans, high-interest rates, neglected neighborhoods, public health problems, debt, and overall lower quality of life compared to their white counterparts (BostonFairHousing).

1948

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Shelley v. Kraemer

The U.S. Supreme Court’s Shelley v. Kraemer decision prevented court enforcement of racially restrictive covenants; they are not ruled unconstitutional, but declares that enforcement at the state level violates the 14th Amendment. The FHA openly challenged this decision and did not comply for two years. Widely used for decades, these covenants prevent white homeowners from selling to African American s and other minorities. They were also required for FHA-insured loans. They were used to keep minorities out of white neighborhoods, as deeds with these covenants “run with the land” (are passed down through successive owners). Many deeds with these covenants still exist today though they are not legally enforceable. While the ruling represents progress, it also leads to much more blockbusting by unscrupulous real estate operators. This hurts both African American and white homeowners (Gorenflo, 2019).

1949

The American Housing Act of 1949

The American Housing Act of 1949 greatly expanded the federal government’s role in housing. It included significant funding and authorized the use of eminent domain to clear slums. By 1974, 2,100 urban renewal projects covering 57,000 acres costing about $53 billion (in 2009 dollars) had been completed. In the process, 300,000 families were forced to move, just over half of them African American (Gorenflo, 2019).

1956

The National Interstate and Defense Highways Act

The National Interstate and Defense Highways Act provided $25 billion over 10 years for the construction of the Interstate Highway System , the largest public works project in U.S. history. This initiative accelerated and subsidized suburbanization, disproportionately benefiting white middle-class families. It also led to the demolition of what is deemed “blighted” urban areas, displacing and further impoverishing communities of color (Gorenflo, 2019).

In Newton, MA, during the construction of Interstate 90, Hicks Street Neighborhood, a historically African American neighborhood, was eliminated by the turnpike. Homes were purchased through eminent domain with little notice and often under market rate. African American residents who were evicted had difficulty finding a new home in the city due to racial discrimination and racially restrictive covenants in the housing market.

1950s

Blockbusting

Blockbusting refers to the practice of introducing African American homeowners into previously all-white neighborhoods to spark rapid white flight and housing price decline. Real estate speculators have historically used this technique to profit from prejudice-driven market instability.

After intentionally placing an African American homeowner onto a block, speculators solicited white owners with tales of impending depreciation. Fearful residents often sold their homes to these speculators well below market value. As white residents began to flee in great numbers, other white residents sold their homes at even lower prices, thus further depressing housing prices in a self-fulfilling prophecy (Gaspaire, 2013).

1950-1960s

Contract Buying

Contract Buying worked like this: A buyer put down a large down payment for a home and made monthly installments at high-interest rates. But the buyer never gained ownership until the contract was paid in full and all conditions were met. Meanwhile, the contract seller held the deed and could evict the buyer. Contract buyers also accumulated no equity in their homes. No laws or regulations protected them. Contract sellers were often realtors who stoked that fear by getting whites to sell their homes below-market prices, purchasing them for themselves, and then offering them on contract to African American families at inflated prices.

A report conducted on contract selling in Chicago found that “Black families in Chicago lost between $3 billion and $4 billion in wealth because of predatory housing contracts during the 1950s and 1960s” (Moore, 2019).

1968

The Fair Housing Act

The Fair Housing Act (Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968) was passed one week after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The Act made it unlawful to “refuse to sell, rent to, or negotiate with any person because of that person’s inclusion in a protected class.” Since the passage of the Fair Housing Act, people have brought many cases of housing discrimination to court and have won those legal battles. There has also been an increase in accessible housing available to individuals with disabilities.

While the act represents progress, dramatic housing disparities persist for several reasons: inconsistent enforcement, the lingering impacts of a past discriminatory housing policy including the huge wealth gap between African Americans and whites, implicit bias, and predatory lending, which the act inadvertently makes possible on a much bigger scale. In 2018, 43.6 percent of African American households own their homes versus 73.6 percent of white households (NLIHC,2018).

1969

Chapter 40B

Chapter 40B – In Massachusetts, Chapter 40B is a state statute that enables local Zoning Boards of Appeals (ZBAs) to approve affordable housing developments under flexible rules if at least 20-25% of the units have long-term affordability restrictions. Also known as the Comprehensive Permit Law, Chapter 40B was enacted in 1969 to help address the shortage of affordable housing statewide by reducing unnecessary barriers created by local approval processes, local zoning, and other restrictions. The goal of Chapter 40B is to encourage the production of affordable housing in all cities and towns throughout the Commonwealth and many communities have used it to negotiate the approval of quality affordable housing developments.

Chapter 40B is a great tool but like all policies, it can fall short. Most Massachusetts communities are not meeting the 10% requirement. Governor Baker signed the Housing Choice Bill into law in early 2021. The law lower thresholds for local government to enact zoning changes, build multi-family housing by right in transit areas, and overall, a great step towards strengthening Chapter 40B and build more affordable and inclusive communities in Massachusetts.

1970

Rising Home Prices

Rising Home Prices – In the early 1970s, the cost of homes spiked upward. It was devastating for young couples looking to save what was left of their inflation-eroded paychecks for a down payment on their first house. For anyone who already owned a home, however, the declining buying power of their salary was offset by the fact that they now owned an asset that was performing like a hot stock. This added a powerful financial motivation to the multiplying list of reasons to oppose nearby development. Homeownership not only was it suddenly very profitable it also acted as a financial hedge against rising prices elsewhere. This was largely due to the most homeowners having fixed-rate mortgages, whose monthly payments never change. Also, unlike renters, homeowners were able to deduct mortgage interest and property taxes from their federal tax bill, lowering their taxable income.

By the end of the decade as real estate grew to encompass a much larger share of American household wealth, suburban cities became increasingly bold in passing growth moratoriums to slow the pace of new development and large-lot zoning ordinances to guarantee that whoever bought the small amount of housing that was being built would have money (Dougherty, 2020).

1970s-1980s

Rise of NIMBY

Rise of NIMBY– With increasingly restrictive zoning in place, developers began to have a tougher time trying to build anything beyond a single-family home to be sold at market rate value. Public opposition from homeowners, or Not in My Back Yard (NIMBY’s), began to rise. Aside from opposing multi-family or affordable housing development, NIMBY’s often made statements with overt or subtle racist reasons for their opposition, often referring to future residents as “not like us,” and fear of “what kind of people” may be moving in to wreak havoc on their neighborhoods, schools, and public roads/water/sewer/medical services.

William Fischel called them “home voters.” Fischel was an economist who spent the 1970s and 1980s developing a theory of suburban behavior that he eventually called “the home voter hypothesis.” The theory went like this: Homes are an all-eggs-in-one-basket kind of investment. You can’t diversify them like a stock, and you can’t buy insurance on falling values. People can get their money back in the event their home is actually destroyed: you can buy fire insurance and flood insurance and earthquake insurance. But the one thing you can’t buy insurance on is the thing homeowners fear most, which is the fear that their neighborhood will go to hell and they’ll be stuck in a house nobody wants to buy.

What did “a neighborhood going to hell” mean? Due to the history of government housing policies that stated people of color would drive down housing value, a statement never backed by data, people continued to believe a neighborhood needed to remain white to sustain strong property values.

And so began a vicious cycle in which the more home prices went up, the further people had to stretch to buy a home, the more motivated new homeowners became to protect their investment, the more home prices went up, the more people had to stretch, and so on. The phrases “housing prices”, “NIMBY”, “exclusionary zoning” and “growth management” went from rare to common usage over the decade (Dougherty, 2020).

Sources:

1990s-2000

Discriminatory Subprime Loan Lending

Discriminatory Subprime Loan Lending– Reporting done after the Great Recession has revealed that Subprime Loan Lending practices by lenders among customers of color was a standard practice of many banks. Not even a good credit score would have spared people of color from these discriminatory lending practices. The Center for Responsible Lending found that during the housing boom, 6.2 percent of whites with a credit score of 660 and higher received high-interest mortgages but 21.4 percent of African Americans with a score of 660 or higher received these same loans. It turned out that several of the major banks had purposely given people of color subprime mortgages, including borrowers who would have qualified for a prime loan. The City of Baltimore took Wells Fargo to court, bringing some of the banking giant’s abhorrent lending practices to light. One former employee testified that in 2001, Wells Fargo created a unit that would be responsible for pushing expensive refinance loans on African American customers.

According to court testimony, some of the loan officers at Wells Fargo spoke of these subprime loans as “ghetto loans,” and referred to their African American customers as “mud people.” There was even a cash incentive for loan officers to aggressively market subprime mortgages in minority neighborhoods. Specifically targeted for subprime loans among the minority demographic were African American women. Women of color are the most likely to receive subprime loans while white men are the least likely; the disparity grows with income levels. Compared to white men earning the same level of income, African American women earning less than the area median income are two and a half times more likely to receive subprime. Upper-income African American women were nearly five times more likely to receive subprime purchase mortgages than upper-income white men.

The services of data collection agencies made it easy for lenders who were able to buy information about a potential borrower’s age, race, and income. Armed with that information, it was easy for lenders to target moderate-to-high income women of color (Baptiste, 2014).

2007-2009

The Great Recession

The Great Recession of 2008, while painful for everyone, was especially disastrous for people of color. The impact of the predatory subprime lending practices was devasting for African American homeowners. Predatory loans that put owners into homes with high-interest mortgages and unaffordable balloon payment structures—where they then defaulted as home values collapsed. Even for upper-income African American households, subprime financing was still much more common than it was among low-income white households. The ACLU points to a report from the Department of Treasury which found that African American families living in upper-income neighborhoods were two times more likely than white households in lower-income neighborhoods to have refinanced their homes with subprime loans. The report also notes that African American and Latino households were nearly 50 percent more likely to face foreclosure than their white counterparts.

Across the nation, African American homeowners were disproportionately affected by the foreclosure crisis, with more than 240,000 African Americans losing homes they had owned.

The wide-reaching and long-lasting financial trauma is especially harmful to African Americans who not only have lower wealth levels, to begin with, higher levels of unemployment and lower levels of income, rendering the chance of recovery all too slim, even as white Americans started to get back on their feet (White, 2015).

2010s

Post Great Recession Gentrification

Post Great Recession Gentrification In 2010, at the height of the foreclosure crisis, the federal government watched nervously as hundreds of thousands of families lost their homes. Empty houses blighted neighborhoods, their shades drawn, their yards overgrown. Federal officials worry that without some kind of intervention the housing market would continue in its free fall, prices would keep dropping for existing homeowners, and the economic recovery, already tenuous, would be jeopardized.

But who would fill these empty homes? Few Americans were in a buying mood, and for those who were, mortgages were harder to come by than they had been before the crash. The federal government incentivized Wall Street to step in by launching a pilot program in early 2012, allowing private investors to easily purchase foreclosed homes by the hundreds from the government agency, Fannie Mae. These new owners would then rent out the homes, creating more housing in areas heavily hit by foreclosures.

It worked. Between 2011 and 2017, some of the world’s largest private-equity groups and hedge funds, as well as other large investors, spent a combined $36 billion on more than 200,000 homes in ailing markets across the country. The same investment firms that had played a part in the housing crisis were now poised to profit from it made for a dismal irony (Semuels, 2019).

What was the impact on communities of color? Minority communities were not only foreclosing on homes at high rates, but they were also being priced out of their communities, communities created by government-led segregation, luxury apartments moved in and rental rates soared, or they were stuck with corporate landlords.

2020

The Coronavirus Pandemic

The Coronavirus Pandemic The pandemic has driven the US economy into a recession. Unemployment rates are higher, and jobs are limited by public health safety measures. These conditions have worsened a preexisting housing crisis. Without work, people have not been able to pay rent or their mortgage, feed their families, they are facing eviction, therefore, more people are living in shelters, with a high risk for contracting the Coronavirus. Though the pandemic has been hard for everyone, not all have been impacted the same.

Who was hit the hardest by the pandemic? People of color. Why? People of color are less likely to have savings, they are more likely to essential jobs with low wages, experience job loss from positions that were not able to go remote, are disproportionately facing eviction, and are less likely to have access to quality and affordable health care.

To understand why people of color have not been able to survive the pandemic at the same rate as white people, it is important to consider all the benefits white communities have been given that systemically excluded communities of color. The policies that have been highlighted on this timeline still have a tremendous impact today. African American and minorities communities have been excluded from the housing market, live in low-resourced communities due to racist policies, have little to zero access to the wealth-building programs offered to white communities, are victims to predatory lending at high rates, have inherited generational debt instead of generational wealth, and many other inequities that resulted in disproportionate death rates from Covid-19 when compared to white communities. White communities were given access to FHA loans, generated massive amounts of wealth from owning a home and real estate, passed generational wealth onto their children, have well-resourced communities, have access to quality health care, and on average are more likely to have a high wage job that has allowed for safe and remote work during the pandemic. The disparities between people of color and white people have been glaring. 

Native Americans are 2.3 X more like to die from Covid 19 when compared to white people.
African Americans are 1.9 X more likely to die from Covid-19 when compared to white people.
Asians are 1X more likely to die from Covid-19 when compared to white people.
Hispanics and Latinos are 2.3X more likely to die from Covid-10 when compared to white people.