Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation, infrastructure, and the environment. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps that reveal and shape urban spaces (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles, GOOD, L.A. Review of Books, and beyond.
Old federal maps and recent Census data combine to show how today's poverty rates align with racist 1930s mortgaging policies.
In the late 1930s, in an attempt to prevent further foreclosures following the Great Depression, the FHA asked the Home Owners' Loan Corporation to assess mortgage-lending risk in hundreds of American cities.
Neighborhood by neighborhood, the HOLC gathered reams of information: terrain, type and age of buildings, sales and rental demand, and about the "threat of infiltration of foreign-born, negro, or lower grade population." Then they mapped this data, using a color code to delineate neighborhoods, from desirable "hot spots" in green to "high risk" blocks in red.
Redlining, as this discriminatory practice came to be known, had devastating and lasting effects for people of color. In particular, African Americans living in those redlined neighborhoods were, as Evan Tachovsky writes at Belt Magazine, "excluded from the mortgage market and targeted by predatory lenders, creating a cycle of insecurity and poverty."
The legacy of redlining remains entrenched across the country today. Tachovsky, a data analyst, has drawn on those old HOLC maps and recent Census data to show how closely contemporary poverty rates align with the racist mortgaging policies of the early 20th century. Above is his map of Detroit; click here for Chicago and Cleveland, featured at Belt. He explains:
On the Census layer, dark grey areas are above the poverty line while light grey areas are below the poverty line. On the HOLC layer, green areas are Grade A (“highly desirable”), blue are Grade B (“somewhat desirable”), yellow are Grade C (“declining”), and red are Grade D (“to be avoided”). Use zoom to navigate between the two layers or the search box to go to a specific address.
And for more on the continuing effects of redlining, read "The Case for Reparations," Ta-Nehisi Coates' 2014 landmark piece on the enduring economic effects of racism. In it, Coates quotes Charles Abrams, the lawyer and urbanist who helped create the New York City Housing Authority. Abrams wrote in 1955:
A government offering such bounty to builders and lenders could have required compliance with a nondiscrimination policy. Instead, the FHA adopted a racial policy that could well have been culled from the Nuremberg laws.