Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
A private Brooklyn developer and a Louisiana public housing authority share the belief that racial division in housing has its plusses.
What’s the value of black lives when it comes to housing discrimination? A Brooklyn property developer answered that question recently when writer D. W. Gibson spoke with him for New York magazine about his real-estate management practices:
“The average price for a black person here in Bed-Stuy is $30,000 dollars. Up over there in East New York, it’s $10,000 dollars.”
This is how much it would cost to pay off African-American residents to leave a building that he (given the alias Ephraim in the piece so he could speak candidly) wanted to develop. The buyout, Ephraim explains, is so he can replace them with white tenants. The reason for this is that white tenant prospects had gotten “riled up” at the thought of having to live next to black people, he told Gibson.
It's the kind of flagrant discrimination you might expect to hear so brazenly admitted only in the Deep South. Those racially coded—OK, blatant—cost-benefit analyses certainly still exist there, as well. In February, New Orleans developer Pres Kabacoff expressed similar sentiments in an interview with Gawker, about what market-rate tenants often expect of their property conditions before moving there. Equating black residents with crime, Kabacoff said:
If there's crime that follows, the market rate gets nervous, votes with their feet and leaves, then it doesn't work. So what do you do with [very low-income tenants] that's too difficult? You just don't take them, or you evict them. Just get them out of there. I don't have the staff to deal with them. One of the deficiencies of the Hope VI model is how do you provide social services for those people?
… In terms of race, black people in [New Orleans] have less money. When neighborhoods revitalize, I think it chases all the poor out, and in our city the poor are almost all black, so it's more a coincidence. And there is probably some racism involved in that. That's the downside of neighborhood improvement.
There’s a logic problem here: Is a neighborhood actually “improved” if its been racially cleansed? It may improve for the people moving in, but not for the residents displaced. While Kabacoff is at least upfront about the role of racism in this equation, Ephraim swears multiple times in his New York mag testimony that he isn’t a racist.
Both men have financial incentive to accommodate wealthier tenants, which they both associate, more or less, with whiteness. Black tenants are associated not only with poverty, but also with crime and messiness. Inclusionary zoning could help stem this, but if the property pushers' logic holds true, they’d still have a difficult time filling market units if white people won't live near black people.
Assuming the two landlords are not anomalies in the real estate world (and much of their discussions would lead us to believe that they are not), it would seem then that racial segregation is not only still alive, but inevitable. It may even be preferred, as a certain landlord believed in a recently settled housing discrimination case that occurred in Louisiana. This one involved a public developer—the housing authority for the city of Ruston, Louisiana, which manages federally subsidized housing for low income residents.
The Justice Department sued the Ruston housing authority in 2013 after learning that staff members were steering black public housing applicants to apartment buildings already saturated with black tenants, and white residents to predominantly white public housing buildings. A project manager for the housing authority admitted to doing this in depositions, which secured a consent decree settlement admonishing the authority’s practices. But that manager (name not listed) believed she was giving tenants of both races what they wanted. From the decree:
Among its provisions, the [Admissions and Continued Placement Policy] requires that [Ruston Housing Authority make housing assignments from a waiting list that is maintained by bedroom size in the order in which households applied and without regard to tenant preference for a particular complex or location. Instead, between 2007 and at least 2011, staff at RHA followed a practice of deferring to the preferences of white applicants for the Louise and Maryland Plaza Homes and of black applicants for the Eastwood, Greenwood, or Truman Homes. Staff at RHA housed white applicants based on their perception that white applicants would favor units in identifiably white complexes and would reject units in identifiably black complexes. Similarly, staff at RHA housed black applicants based on their perception that black applicants would favor, or would be less likely to reject, units in identifiably black complexes.
Some background on those homes: the Louise and Maryland Plaza buildings were built in 1956 and 1965, respectively, for white low-income tenants; the Greenwood and Truman buildings were built during the same years for black tenants. Despite abandoning that segregation policy, these tenants have remained racially segregated—maintained not only in the apartment buildings’ compositions but also by neighborhood. The Louise and Maryland homes sit in census tracts that are 75 percent white, separated by railroad tracks from the census tracts that the Greenwood, Truman, and Eastwood buildings occupy, which are between 75 percent to 79 percent African-American.
When applying for public housing in Ruston, prospective tenants are allowed to list which building they prefer to live in. According to the consent decree, it sounds like many of them opted to live in buildings where the population reflected their own race. But since the housing authority is obligated to comply with civil rights laws, its officers are supposed to affirmatively further fair housing by proactively integrating prospective tenants of different races together, regardless of their preferences.
Instead, the housing authority chose to place residents in ways that reinforced Jim Crow policies of the 1950s. Similar housing-authority steering practices were also flagged by the Justice Department in the city of Winder in Georgia, and at least a half dozen other cases around the nation over the past few years.
Not all of Ruston’s black tenants preferred to live in segregated buildings, though, as evidenced by the victims of the steering practices named in the Justice Department’s complaint. As part of the settlement, the housing authority is expected to pay out $175,000 to 19 tenants who were discriminated against, with each one collecting between $25,000 to $3,000 for their ordeals.
The settlement terms also afford tenants the opportunity to live in the building of their choice—meaning they’re not just getting bought out, but also granted the freedom to live somewhere other than where history has placed them.