Police brutality landed us at our reckoning on race. But the crux of this problem lies much closer to home.
Our inequities in wealth, income, education, and yes, even policing, all start where we live.
“Achieving racial justice in Virginia requires overcoming housing segregation,” according to a report by the McGuireWoods Zoning and Segregation Work Group, intended as a “call to action” to state and local leaders.
“In many localities, neighborhoods are more racially segregated today than they were 50 years ago. Housing segregation affects education, job opportunities, family income, health and access to a quality life,” the report says.
“Elected officials throughout the United States, and Virginia lawmakers in particular, used zoning through most of the 20th century as a governmental tool to segregate African Americans. In combination with other discriminatory laws and governmental actions, zoning segregated Virginia communities.”
After great struggle, civil rights activists and President Lyndon B. Johnson realized the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But they hit a wall when it came to equal access to housing.
It only was after the April 4, 1968, assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that Johnson was able to persuade Congress to approve the Fair Housing Act prohibiting racial discrimination in housing.
It was not a panacea.
The gap of nearly 30 percentage points between Black and white home ownership is wider today than it was in 1960, according to the Urban Institute, a Washington-based think tank.
Or as the young poet protagonist wrote in the book, “Malcolm and Me,” by my wife, Robin Farmer: We’re still marching for equality/While white people build equity.
According to the McGuireWoods report, zoning continues to reinforce patterns of segregation today despite the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
To counter the forces of historic segregation, advocates have launched a movement called YIMBY — an acronym for “Yes, In My Backyard” — in response to the pervasive “Not In My Backyard” resistance that has dominated residential planning for decades.
It’s about time.
The Richmond region is 57% white, 29% Black, 7% Latino and 4% Asian.
Does your neighborhood reflect the diversity of our region, or that of your jurisdiction?
“To be blunt, I think we need to have a long, hard, honest conversation about NIMBYism and the ability of neighbors to stop affordable housing developments in their tracks,” says Laura Lafayette, CEO of the Richmond Association of Realtors.
“I respect and understand the desire of folks who have purchased single-family homes to see the value of their homes increase; makes total sense, because for most people, it’s the most significant investment they will ever make. But if wealth building through home ownership is a priority for them, why would they not think it’s a priority for others and why would anyone want to deny another person of that opportunity?”
One expression of the YIMBY movement is a move away from single-family zoning, which has contributed to housing segregation, wealth disparity, suburban sprawl and a dearth of affordable housing.
Minneapolis has abolished single-family zoning. Portland and Sacramento, among other cities, are moving in that direction.
Lafayette described it as “one tool in the toolbox” but adds, “I’m not sure the all-or-nothing approach is realistic here.”
But she notes that many local jurisdictions are overhauling their zoning codes, which she sees as an opportunity to rezone more land for multifamily development and create flexibility to allow duplexes and quads in what otherwise would be traditional single-family housing neighborhoods.
In the meantime, “we need to think more broadly about ‘home ownership,’” she said, adding: “An ownership interest and the ability to gain equity and build wealth should not always be tied to single -family detached homes.”
Lafayette frames this issue as one of “basic fairness, basic human decency. If folks cannot find affordable rental housing, it’s hard to see how they become home owners.”
Our issues — as the pandemic and the accompanying eviction crisis have demonstrated — go beyond ownership.
Lafayette said we need affordable rental options and an assortment of ownership options to build equity and wealth, including condos, co-ops, townhomes and the land trust. And once folks become homeowners, they need to be informed on how to pass their wealth on to their heirs.
“The racial wealth gap is unconscionable,” she said. “If we’re serious about addressing it, it can’t be Affordable Housing 101 as usual. We will need tools in the toolbox that not only create more affordable housing opportunities, but specifically address the disparities along racial lines.”
It’s time for local jurisdictions to recognize the urgency of the moment and expand their anti-racism toolbox. If Black lives truly matter, we must dismantle the infrastructure of housing discrimination where we live.
We will have no racial justice without housing justice.