The Legacy of Redlining

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When I was in planning school at the University of South Florida, I took a course in American housing policy. Looking back, the material covered in that class significantly influenced my views about my work, and society generally. Among other topics, the course material covered the impact of redlining on the development of American cities and suburbs during the mid-20th Century. The short version is that:

  • The federal government greatly expanded its role in the housing market during the Great Depression.
  • Early in this process, the Homeowners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) dispatched analysts to evaluate neighborhood conditions in major cities across the nation.
    • Part of their evaluation was based on explicitly racist and classicist assumptions.
    • At times their reports show a bias against White-ethnics (e.g. an “infiltration of Italians” in the Bronx).
    • All of the reports for areas with significant Black populations show a strong anti-Black bias.
    • In Florida, the reports describe neighborhoods characterized by “cheap sort of tourists,” White “laborers and mechanics,” and “the best grade Negro.” The Tampa Heights neighborhood is described as “rapidly filling with Latins.”
  • During the post-war period, access to insured fully amortized 30-year mortgages made a majority-homeowner society possible.
  • However, discriminatory banking practices discouraged originating loans collateralized by properties in certain neighborhoods and geographic areas. Many private banks relied on the “residential security maps” produced by HOLC to make these determinations.
  • At the same time, racially restrictive covenants blocked Black families from many of the new suburban residential developments transforming working class White-America into a middle class nation. In the South, some cities continued to illegally enforce racial zoning as late as 1951 (technically unenforceable as early as 1917). Although Shelly v. Kramer prohibited enforcement of racially restrictive covenants after 1948, it was not until the Fair Housing Act of 1968 that there was real enforcement against racial discrimination in the housing market.
  • Black families of means began to move into integrated communities during the Civil Rights era, following a decades-long process of suburbanization by White families. The combined result of these two trends was the systematic disinvestment and neglect of urban residential nieghborhoods.
  • The Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 finally prohibited the practice of redlining. Mortgage loan decisions must now be made based on the credit worthiness of the borrower, as well as value and condition of the specific collateral.

Many books and scholarly articles discuss the importance and impact of HOLC in establishing the practice of redlining. My favorites include American Apartheid, and Crabgrass Frontier. Jane Jacobs describes the impact of redlining on predominately White working class neighborhoods in New York and Boston during the 1950s. That implies that there was more to the practice than racial discrimination. I have also seen some research which suggests that HOLC’s analysis did not actually impact lending practices in subsequent decades. Nonetheless, it’s a fascinating story and a possible partial explanation of the current state of many American cities.

The professor who taught my Housing Policy class had a copy of the residential security map and report prepared by HOLC for the city of Tampa. It provided some of my first inklings that the “boring” technical details of public policy can shape the physical and social environment we live in for years to come.

Today, I found out that the University of Richmond has posted all of the HOLC security maps and reports to an interactive website! I have posted it in the iframe below. There are reports for four Florida cities (St. Petersburg, Tampa, Jacksonville, and Miami).