How Racial Discrimination in Housing Persists in Washington, DC
By Christina Sturdivant Sani
A local mapping project from two local historians sheds light on the impact of racially-restrictive deed covenants that kept housing in DC segregated during the first half of the 20th Century. Prologue DC, a small historical research company founded by Mara Cherkasky and Sarah Jane Shoenfeld, officially launched its latest iteration of “Mapping Segregation in Washington DC” on October 24. (GGWash has written about earlier versions of their project here and here.)
In a packed room at The George Washington University’s Textile Museum, Shoenfeld gave a preview of three featured exhibits on the website: a walking tour highlighting key sites along the racial line in Bloomingdale, an updated version of story map on legal challenges to racially restrictive covenants, and a slideshow documenting the role of blockbusting and racial steering in facilitating DC’s mid-century racial transformation. There’s a lot in there, so take some time to click around.
The 2018 launch coincides with several anti-discrimination milestones, including the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Fair Housing Act (which prohibited most forms of racial, ethnic, and religious discrimination in the sale or rental of housing and in mortgage lending), the 70th anniversary of the 1948 Supreme Court decision (which made racially restrictive deed covenants unconstitutional), and others.
The better half of the evening was spent in a frank discussion about past and present housing challenges, particularly for African Americans in DC, moderated by WAMU’s Sasha-Ann Simons. Here’s what the panelists had to say.
Discrimination and poverty persist decades after these rulings
“I think it’s clear today that there’s no evidence that the United States has been firmly committed to fair housing,” said panelist Greg Squires, a professor of sociology and public policy and administration at George Washington University. Though things have improved since 1968, Squires said that racial steering, discrimination by appraisal firms, redlining and reverse redlining by mortgage lenders — among other issues — persist for people of color.
The series of laws that have gotten onto the books allow for formal equality, but that’s not enough, Squires explained. “The law prohibits things we’re talking about, but we can see that we haven’t really gotten to where we should be because formal equality doesn’t get you equity.”
In fact, Simons pointed out that many people don’t even know they’re being discriminated against. In an April 2018 WAMU report, Lisa Rice, the CEO of DC-based National Fair Housing Alliance, said that 126 housing discrimination cases were reported to DC’s Equal Rights Center in 2017. However, Rice says that number is extremely misleading because the overwhelming majority of fair housing cases don’t get reported since “people don’t recognize signs of discrimination.”
Squires said we shouldn’t be fooled by studies showing average household incomes going up. While that may be true, we’re experiencing “tremendous inequality,” he said. Average income are going up because those at the top are doing very well, “but the people in poverty are still there — the poverty rate is not declining in any significant way.”
He pointed out that a typical white family has 81 times the wealth of a typical black family, which is a “tremendous cushion” in times of uncertainty. “I don’t think that number can be repeated often enough to understand the polarization that we have in Washington DC,” Squires said.
So what’s the path forward?
It often seems as if people have “historical amnesia,” said panelist Dr. Natalie Hopkinson, a writer, cultural scholar, and columnist. She pointed out that the the government itself dictated color-coded neighborhoods in places like DC’s Bloomingdale neighborhood, where she bought a home after graduating from Howard University. “It didn’t happen by accident, so undoing it can’t be by accident either,” she said.
Hopkinson suggested looking back, which brings us back to Prologue DC’s mapping project. The maps bring history alive so people can understand how the city’s patterns of inequality were birthed, and allow us to see discrimination “on a very granular level — block by block,” she said.
Restricted Housing and Racial Change, 1940–1970
Squires says another stage of organizing is necessary to combat persistent barriers. He championed the Housing First and Right to the City movements, which stand in contrast to the traditional narrative, which paints housing as “a commodity that you get as a privilege because you worked hard, got an education and earned it.”
The Housing First movement argues that housing should be a right — not a privilege someone earns in the marketplace. That’s because if a family’s housing isn’t stabilized, it’s difficult for them to tackle other aspects of life, from plotting out a job search to choosing a school for their child.
Locally, groups such as Empower DC, ONE DC, and the Latino Economic Development Center push for this approach, according to panelist Amanda Huron, an associate professor of interdisciplinary social sciences at the University of the District of Columbia. “There’s a lot of good stuff happening right now,” she said.
Still, as the District has some of the best tenants rights laws across the country, “we still see enormous waves of gentrification and displacement — so that tells us what a stiff problem we’re up against,” Huron said. “I want to be hopeful, but there are some serious challenges when you have this intense real estate market.”
As a professor, Huron said her students have created and used such maps as tools to think critically about the city and how has changed over time.
“I’m excited to think how they could be used in the classroom at the college level and certainly at the high school level too,” Huron said. DC history is a required class in public schools, and “there’s no reason that this should not become part of the standard curriculum… and I want to advocate for that.”
Christina Sturdivant Sani is a proud DC native whose work has exposed disparities and injustices that permeate under-resourced communities. She finds joy in highlighting creative solutions in this rapidly changing city.