Episode 61: Housing, Highways and Systemic Racism

What does systemic racism look like? In this episode, we look at how housing discrimination in theory and in practice in the Twin Cities contributes to the dramatic racial disparities in Minneapolis. We also look at how the development of the interstate system in the Twin Cities unfairly targeted communities of color with the help of biased federal regulations and housing practices.

Episode+61%3A+Housing%2C+Highways+and+Systemic+Racism

Jessica Toledo

MEGAN PALMER: Hey all, and happy Thursday. This month, the podcast team at the Daily has been following the George Floyd protests and the history of policing in Minneapolis. This week, we’re taking a look at how racism in housing has underpinned generations of inequality. Reporter Jess Toledo has the story.

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JESSICA TOLEDO: I’m Jessica Toledo. Welcome back to “In the Know.” Let’s get into it. 

The past few weeks have been filled with protests across the country.

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TOLEDO: Protestors are using civil disruption and online activism to call attention to the issue of systemic racism in the U.S.

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TOLEDO: Systemic racism, also known as institutional racism, is a form of racism that is embedded in the normal practice of a society or institution. It would take way more than one podcast episode to break down what systemic racism is and looks like, so in this episode, we’re going to talk about systemic racism in a form that can be visualized: housing discrimination. 

Historian Denise Pike, one of the co-curators of the Owning Up project, which explores the history of racial housing discrimination in Minneapolis, summarized that idea for me.

DENISE PIKE: Housing discrimination typically, when we talk about it it’s racial housing discrimination. It’s different ways that people of different races are excluded from owning or occupying homes and that really plays out in the Twin Cities through violence perpetrated by white residents intimidating black families out of homes and also plays out in policies and laws like racial covenants, redlining, just lots of different ways that people of color are excluded from homeownership or living in certain areas.

TOLEDO: To understand the extent that housing discrimination has affected communities of color, we’re going to break down a few important terms, starting with redlining. 

Professor Edward Goetz from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs specializes in housing and explained the history of redlining and its impacts. 

GOETZ: The Great Depression of the 1930s created widespread unemployment and people’s incomes were interrupted, they were unable to pay their mortgages. They went into default. And, the banks took back a lot of the properties. This also led to a significant decline in property values as well. And so sometimes when the banks got these homes back, they were unable to sell them for what they had already lent out on them. 

So after a while, banks stopped making home loans because they weren’t making any money on it. And when they stopped making home loans, the housing industry stopped building new homes that put more people out of work. It was this really vicious negative cycle going on in the economy, so the federal government created what was called the Homeowner’s Loan Corps. Or HOLC. 

The HOLC’s job was to repair all of these bad mortgages, all of the mortgages that were in default, mortgages that were for more money than the house was now worth.  So the Homeowner’s Loan Corporation tried to fix all of these loans and they did so by subsidizing a lot of the loans and getting them taken care of, but one of the things that the Homeowner’s Loan Corporation created was a system of rating properties. And they did it by Color coding, there was a red color for properties that were located in neighborhoods where properties were declining in value. On the other end of the spectrum, there were green neighborhoods where property values were continuing to increase. And then there was this intermediate category that I think was colored yellow. The Homeowner’s Loan Corporation literally took maps and colored in areas, green, yellow and red, to identify what they thought was the degree of safety and making loans in those neighborhoods.

And the experts of the day in the 1930s understood the housing market in racial terms, and so in fact, they made recommendations to the federal government about what are loan worthy areas or not based primarily on who lived there.

And what you got was a completely sort of racist set of guidelines about where to make loans or not, and that was the origin of the whole redlining idea.

TOLEDO: Redlining and racially restrictive deeds and covenants were two of the most impactful tools of housing discrimination. 

The Mapping Prejudice project has created a map that displays all the racial covenants found in the Minneapolis area. The project co-founder Kirsten Delegard explains what these are. 

DELEGARD: They’re a couple of lines of text, sometimes several pages depending on where they are, that are just part of the property deed. What it is is that you’re reading through a contract, a real estate contract. It’s this very dry legal document. And it has all this formulaic legalistic information like who sold this property to whom, what’s the legal address? Sometimes it has the price, and then you’ll see a racial covenant and it will say something like “this premises shall not at any time, be conveyed, mortgaged or leased to any person or persons of Chinese, Japanese, or Turkish, Negro, Mongolian or African blood or descent.” 

So that was the text of the first racial covenant that was inserted into the property record and in Minneapolis, that was in 1910. That was connected to a piece of land over on 35th Avenue South and once this practice started then, you know, within a decade or two, thousands of thousands of these clauses had been inserted into property deeds across the city.

TOLEDO: The use of these covenants was not limited to the Twin Cities, as Goetz points out.  

GOETZ: The federal government actually recommended the use of these racially restrictive deeds in programs that it operated and that it subsidized. So the most widespread example of that is the Federal Housing Administration, the Federal Housing Administration subsidized homeownership for hundreds of thousands, probably millions of families in the United States throughout the 20th century. And for many years, the federal government recommended that these racially restrictive deeds and Covenants be used.

TOLEDO: The national shift encouraging the use of racial covenants drastically changed the neighborhood composition.. Delegard explained that these covenants became a way for white residents to justify pushing out Black families.

DELEGARD: In 1910, when racial covenants are first introduced, Minneapolis is not particularly segregated, and actually my team has done a lot of research that shows that African American families were really living all over the southern half of the city in particular. They were buying homes, they were helping other family members buy homes, doing a lot of mutual aid to help friends, family members get established, own property. 

And, you really see you see just a real watershed in 1910, because, along with the introduction of racial covenants, you have neighborhood associations, organizing, to try to drive African American families out of certain neighborhoods, out of neighborhoods that white residents said these are white neighborhoods and we don’t want anyone who’s not white there. 

TOLEDO: Despite the discrimination people of color faced due to these practices, there are still accounts of people and families who resisted being driven out. 

DELEGARD: Black homeowners all over the country who are buying houses that have racial covenants, they’re trying to defy these legal restrictions or they’re moving into neighborhoods, where maybe, or maybe like the house doesn’t have a racial covenant but it’s seen as an all-white neighborhood. 

So a good example of that is the Lee family. Arthur and Edith Lee, who moved into a house on the corner of 46th and Columbus in South Minneapolis. In 1931, and they were immediately besieged by neighbors. So when the neighbors found out that it was an African American family, a couple and their young daughter Mary, who had moved into this little house, they immediately started organizing to get them to move. They went to the bank. they went to political leaders. Then when none of that worked and Arthur Lee said, look, I’m a World War One veteran, I have a right to establish a home. I fought in mud in France for this. When he refused to leave they organized a mob around his house and threatened to burn his house down and kill him and his family. 

The only reason that that did not happen is that he was able to draw on people he had served in the military with other veterans, and also his co-workers at the post office who actually formed an armed perimeter around his house and kept watch. He and his wife and his daughter had to sleep in the basement though because there were so many people throwing things through the windows of the house. And this went on not for a day or two but it went on for months. In the summer in July of 1931. That was a really powerful form of resistance. And you can see, they were able to stay in their house for a couple of years but after that, it was just too much for them.

TOLEDO: Gentrification was another phenomenon that specifically affected the relocation of people of color in urban areas. Professor Keith Mayes of the African American studies department at the U is a firsthand witness of how this movement of well-to-do white people into majority low-income neighborhoods with primarily residents of color changed New York. 

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MAYES: I grew up in New York City, born and raised in Harlem. And there were buildings that were being sold by the city for $1. $1. The building was boarded up or burnt out, sat there for years, right. Undeveloped just a burnt-out, boarded-up building. $1. Or brownstone for $1. 

Well, what was the catch? It was trying to attract investors. It was trying to say, if you’re the type of investor who has equity, money, capital we’ll basically give you the building for free. All you need to do is go to a bank and get a loan for 1,2,3 $400,000 and convert it and make it what you want to make it. You can build it up, refurbish it, sell it. Now a lot of folks did that. 

TOLEDO: Investors would get capital from the bank and they redeveloped in neighborhoods with predominantly residents of colors. And Mayes said they did that on every single block.

I mean, every. Single. Block. Because it was maybe one block had one building like that. There were some blocks that had like four or five buildings like that. You have whole blocks that sat for years only to wait for an era, not only waiting for a person or entity or company to redevelop it but wait for an era. What was the era? That era was the late 80s. And the early 1990s. And, and when I go back home, my neighborhood looks completely different. I grew up in a neighborhood that had blighted, burnt-out buildings. And they were like that for 20 years, only in less than 10 or 15. But the whole neighborhood had been transformed.  

TOLEDO: People wanted prime areas of the city. And developers, they wanted to attract white families from the suburbs, young professionals fresh out of school. So they put up high rises and condos to create a completely new, white community, Mayes says.

MAYES: They used to call it urban renewal back in the 1960s. And they have developers come in to say that the neighborhoods were blighted and they were burned down and, you know, we wanted to do something with it. But you know, urban renewal, there’s a famous cliche that people say, urban renewal was nothing more than Negro removal.

TOLEDO: The concept of building newer and better housing to improve parts of cities like New York and Minneapolis also fell in line with the construction of the interstate system in the 1950s. 

MAYES: Developers often look for the path of least resistance, community resistance for sure. But it’s also tied to the ways in which communities have been funded and invested. So we talked about those color-coded maps, right, the red areas, the green, yellow, blue areas, you’d be hard-pressed to find any interstate system that was built in the mid 20th century that was built in a green neighborhood-a white neighborhood, so they went through red ones.  

TOLEDO: Denise Pike of the Owning Up project also pointed out that the lasting effects of I-94 are not as well known.

PIKE: When people talk about highways and displacement of people of color, a lot of people point to the Rondo community in St. Paul. It was a very vibrant African American community that was displaced for 94 and that the community there and activists have been working for a long time to get that recognition about the history and what actually happened there. But people don’t realize that this happened and thousands of other communities across the US and even in South Minneapolis.

TOLEDO: Pike references the Rondo neighborhood in St. Paul briefly, but I would like to take a second to talk about what happened to that neighborhood to clarify the significance of its destruction. 

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In 1956, national pressures to build a cohesive interstate system resulted in the Federal-Aid Highway Act. The goals of this act were to provide highways built to the safest and highest standards available, to meet traffic needs for the next 20 years, and to connect a substantial number of large cities by 1972. 

Minnesota was well prepared for the passing of this act. According to a document written by the Center of Urban and Regional Affairs and the Center for Transportation Studies at the University, one of the streets that was a potential route option for the placement of I-94 was St. Anthony Avenue.

St. Anthony Avenue paralleled University Avenue and extended from the central business district in St. Paul to Minneapolis and ran near the U and the Midway Industrial District. 

As the avenue approached St. Paul, St. Anthony ran through Rondo, a predominantly Black neighborhood in St. Paul. 

A St. Paul city engineer named George Harrold was opposed to creating a freeway through the cities, because he was concerned it would displace people and businesses. 

The Minnesota Highway Department felt that the alternative would not serve the midway area as well because the route was less direct and in 1947, the St. Paul city council approved the St. Anthony avenue plan.

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Around the same time there was a national push for urban renewal funding and the placement of I-94 was solidified as the result of the urban renewal project west of the state capitol. 

Although the St. Anthony plan would result in the disruption of the Black community in the area, African American leaders did not become aware of the plan’s approval until 1953, six years after it occurred. 

The plan’s approval came up because there was a push to rehabilitate a school within the community and they found out that the school was in the path of the proposed freeway.  

Community leader Reverend Floyd Massey encouraged residents to form the Rondo-St. Anthony improvement association in response to freeway construction. 

At this point, many community residents had already been displaced by the urban renewal project so further displacement was a concern. 

It also seemed possible that displacement might result in the integration of other neighborhoods as community leaders hoped for an enactment of an ordinance that would make the discrimination in the rental and sale of homes illegal as a part of their negotiations with political leaders. 

The explicit designation that discrimination on the basis of race in housing would not be declared illegal until 1968 when the Fair Housing Act was passed. 

Massey and Timothy Howard, the leader of the Rondo-St. Anthony improvement association went to governor Orville Freeman and the Minnesota Highway Department officials, asking them to give authority to a state agency to ensure that the relocation of community members was done without discrimination.

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Governor Freeman referred the matter to the state commission on human rights, which had no legal power. So the leaders voiced their concerns but no government body was charged with addressing their problems and no action was taken.

One in eight Black residents lost a home to I-94. Of the homes demolished, 72% of them had been Black-owned homes. 

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Research conducted after relocation found that non-white neighborhoods of the surrounding areas saw an increase of non-white residents. The previously vibrant mixed community became primarily Black and economically depressed. 

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Housing circumstances changed very drastically for those living in the communities affected by the construction of the interstate system. According to Mayes, your housing situation reaches far beyond a place to sleep at night.

MAYES: I remember this line that Malcolm X used to use or frequently say, ‘when you live in a poor neighborhood, you can only have poor schooling and poor education.’ When you have poor education that only allows you to get a poor-paying job and then that poor-paying job, again, allows you to live in that same poor neighborhood. So he talked about how that’s a vicious cycle.

TOLEDO: The factors that determine who has access to which neighborhoods, in turn, determine the allocation of public goods and community services. Pike and Kacie Lucchini-Butcher, the co-curators of the Owning Up Project, explain how housing discrimination affects policing in communities. 

KACIE LUCCHINI-BUTCHER: There is so much data and there’s so much statistics that housing is really the foundation of inequality. Where you live affects everything about your life and who you will become. It affects the pollution that you’re exposed to your access to education, your access to health care, your access to food, your access to services. It is truly the one thing that can change your life the most. And so I think that that’s for us when we think about housing. You know, we would hear people saying things like, Well, you know, it was 50 years ago, or you know, it’s not like that anymore. Like, why does that even matter? Because it’s illegal. And the thing is, a lot of the patterns that you see on these maps, a lot of these redlined neighborhoods still are primarily Black today. And those are the neighborhoods that you see where they’re in food deserts so they have less access to grocery stores, to fresh food, to healthy food. 

TOLEDO: Pike says that not only are these neighborhoods under-resourced, they’re also overpoliced. 

PIKE: And I’d like to also connect it to the situation that we’re currently in dealing with the effects of George Floyd’s murder. A lot of people now are realizing the extent of police brutality, and especially how that police brutality is targeted at Black communities. And I like to point out when we’re talking about housing discrimination is that you can’t target communities unless you have them corralled and contained into very specific areas. So it even extends to how police are able to over-police areas. They go to an area they know that area’s a high Black population and they’re able to then arrest more people, brutalize them, they’re able to target them for drug crimes at higher rates than white neighborhoods. So I think it’s important that this ties into a lot of different things and it really ties into how people’s lives are affected.

TOLEDO: The New York Times mapped out places in Minneapolis where police stop people the most. The data visualized the number of times police officers used force against Black people per block and the share of the population that is Black. The areas with the highest numbers of police force are predominantly communities of color.

PIKE: And there’s also policing of Black bodies in white spaces. So historically, you see a lot of housing discrimination happening because white homeowners are fearful of falling property values, they don’t want their property value to fall. They don’t want their house value to depreciate, and so that they’re willing to inflict violence on Black people to ensure that they can maintain the status quo and their wealth and their property values. Well, now there are studies showing that in white neighborhoods and white areas, police also target Black people who happen to be in those areas. And there’s a correlation where housing prices will increase in those white areas higher than other areas in places where Black people are murdered by police. So you have this historical and this present day connection between housing discrimination, white wealth and the policing of Black bodies as well.

TOLEDO: Housing discrimination has a long and deep history, not only in the Twin Cities but also across the country. The effects of this injustice can still be seen in present-day neighborhoods and how they are policed. 

It’s important to keep this history in mind to better understand the depth with which systemic racism is intentionally built. 

Education is an important aspect of understanding and a list of resources by the people I talked to in this episode can be found on the Daily website, alongside the transcription of the episode. 

MEGAN PALMER: Thank you for joining us this month as we’ve covered the George Floyd protests and the varied history of racism in the Twin Cities. In The Know will continue regularly scheduled publishing in the fall. Until then, take care.

Additional Resources:

The Owning Up Project: Racism and Housing in Minneapolis

Mapping Prejudice

“Jim Crow in the North”

“New Deal Ruins” by Ed Goetz