Why is the population of Massapequa in New York’s Nassau County 98% percent white? Why do almost no Black families live in suburban Levittown, New York? Are we looking at free choices by families or underlying housing patterns that reflect the impact of past and current racist practices?
Newsday exposed racial channeling by Long Island realtors in an investigation that showed how they steered potential home buyers to particular towns based on their race and ethnicity.
Suburban growth on Long Island and other major metropolitan areas exploded after the Second World War as returning veterans pushed to start families and purchase homes. Farmland was converted into housing developments. Federal infrastructure investment like highway construction made commutes to work possible.
Between 1960 and 1964, about half a million white people left New York City for white suburban enclaves. The redlining of areas by banks and real estate agencies designating them for specific racial groups produced community and school segregation patterns in suburbs across the country that continue to exist today.
Between 1946 and 1951, Levitt and Sons constructed 17,447 low-cost two and three bedroom homes on Long Island. Ninety percent of the units were purchased by the families of World War II veterans. Initially, Levitt and Sons included a clause in mortgage and rental agreements that restricted occupancy to “Caucasians,” except for “domestic servants.” Even after the clause was removed, the company still refused to sell or rent to African Americans.
According to the 1960 census, of the 65,276 residents of Levittown, only 57 were Black, less than .1% of the population. In a 1954 interview, William Levitt argued “The plain fact is that most whites prefer not to live in mixed communities. This attitude may be wrong morally, and some day it may change. I hope it will. But as matters now stand, it is unfair to charge an individual with the blame for creating this attitude or saddle him with the sole responsibility for correcting it. The responsibility is society’s. So far society has not been willing to cope with it. Until it does, it is not reasonable to expect that any builder should or could undertake to absorb the entire risk and burden of conducting such a vast experiment.”
Housing discrimination is a major reason for the black-white wealth gap in the United States. For most American families, their major asset is their home. Levittown, New York houses that sold for less than $7,000 in 1950 are now worth between $500,000 and $600,000 and some over $700,000; that’s a 1,000% increase in inheritable family wealth for the families of the original white home-buyers.
The roots of racial segregation in metropolitan area suburbs actually predate the post-War suburban expansion. Federal housing policy dating from the 1930s was overtly racist and contributed to white flight from cities and largely white suburbs and school districts surrounding the nation’s metropolitan areas.
During the 1930s, to secure support for New Deal legislation from Southern Democrats, President Franklin Roosevelt agreed that local officials would administer federal benefits according to local custom and African Americans would largely be excluded. The Social Security system, unemployment compensation, minimum wage protection, and the right of workers to join labor unions, key components of the New Deal, did not initially cover most African Americans.
The same practices were continued after World War II with the administration of GI Bill benefits for veterans. Historian Ira Katznelson documented the policies and their impact in his book When Affirmative Action Was White (2005). African-American World War II veterans received significantly less help from the G.I. Bill than returning white soldiers. Katznelson argues, “Written under Southern auspices, the law was deliberately designed to accommodate Jim Crow.”
The Federal Housing Act of 1934, revised in 1937, established the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to regulate and stabilize the home mortgage market and prevent bank foreclosures. One of the most striking examples of discriminatory federal policy is in a 1938 Underwriting Manual issued by the FHA to guide mortgage approval. Neighborhood stabilization depended on minimizing “adverse influences” such as the “infiltration of business and industrial uses, lower class occupancy, and inharmonious racial groups.”
Before granting mortgage protection, “Areas surrounding a location are investigated to determine whether incompatible racial and social groups are present, for the purpose of making a prediction regarding the probability of the location being invaded by such groups.” FHA administrators were concerned that a “change in social or racial occupancy generally contributes to instability and a decline in values.” To ensure the retention of housing value, “each Economic Background Area” was assigned a number ranking and labeled with “a letter indicating predominating racial characteristics:” W-White; M-Mixed; F-Foreign; and N-Negro.
An interactive map on the website Mapping Inequality reproduces the redlining maps for American cities created by the FHA Home Owners’ Loan Corporation in the 1930s. Three neighborhoods in southeastern Queens, New York were rated undesirable for issuing federally insured mortgages, two because their population was over thirty percent Black and one because it abutted those communities.
Segregated housing means segregated schools. Long Island, New York’s two counties have 124 mini-school districts that are largely racially, ethnically and economically segregated. The student population in the Garden City school district, which abuts Hempstead, is 92% white and Asian, while the student population of the Hempstead school district is 96% African American and Latino. The student population in the Bellmore-Merrick consolidated high school district is 85% white and Asian while the student population of the neighboring Roosevelt school district is 100% Black and Latino.
Federal racial guidelines established in the 1930s also continue to have had a profound impact on the health of residents of the different communities and neighborhoods. According to a recent study by American Forests, a conservation organization, tree density plays an important role in moderating severe high temperatures and maintaining air quality. In American urban areas, neighborhoods where a majority of people are poor have 25% less tree canopy than in more affluent communities and wealthy areas in general have as much as 65% more tree canopy than the poorest communities. Extreme heat leads to the death of more Americans than any other natural phenomenon and average temperatures can differ by up to ten degrees Fahrenheit between locales with and without tree cover. Trees also trap air pollutants that cause acute respiratory symptoms like asthma. Increased tree cover has been associated with higher educational achievement for young people and improved mental and physical health.
In 11th grade, New York State students study United States history. They learn about the New Deal, suburban expansion, and the African American Civil Rights movement, but the three are rarely connected. Using a much maligned Critical Race Theory lens, the connections emerge and students can begin to understand the racial-wealth gap in the United States. Graphs illustrating the racial wealth gap are available from Brookings.
Excerpts from UNDERWRITING MANUAL UNDERWRITING AND VALUATION PROCEDURE UNDER TITLE II OF THE NATIONAL HOUSING ACT FEDERAL HOUSING ADMINISTRATION (Washington DC. Revised February 1938)
1. In sections 935 and 1412, what are the “adverse influences” mitigating against mortgage
2. According to sections 937, 951, and 973, how is the “Quality of Neighboring Development”
3. How are schools evaluated?
4. How were neighborhoods and towns labeled?
5. In your opinion, what was the long-term impact of 1930s federal housing guidelines? Explain.
935. Natural Physical Protection. The geographical position of a location may afford reliable protection from adverse influences. If a location lies in the middle of an area well developed with a uniform type of residential properties, and if the location is away from main arteries which would logically be used for business purposes, probability of a change in type, use, or occupancy of properties at this location is remote. The degree of immunity offered to a location because of its geographical position within the city is to be considered. Natural or artificially established barriers will prove effective in protecting a neighborhood and the locations within it from adverse influences. Usually the protection from adverse influences afforded by these means includes prevention of the infiltration of business and industrial uses, lower class occupancy, and inharmonious racial groups. A location close to a public park or area of similar nature is usually well protected from infiltration of business and lower social occupancy coming from that direction. Hills and ravines and other peculiarities of topography often make encroachment of inharmonious uses so difficult that protection is afforded. A high speed traffic artery or a wide street parkway may prevent the expansion of inharmonious uses to a location on the opposite side of the street. However, if a high speed traffic artery passes directly through a desirable neighborhood area with similar development on each side of the artery, the noise and attendant danger constitute an adverse influence, rather than a protection. The same holds true for the presence of railroads, elevated or surface lines, and other means of transportation.
937. Quality of Neighboring Development. The quality of dwelling construction is significant, inasmuch as unsubstantial, flimsy construction is subject to rapid deterioration which hastens the lowering of class of occupancy. The same result maybe expected for locations whose properties present freakish architectural designs. The rating will be adversely affected if the neighboring development consists of old, obsolete dwellings. The presence of overimprovement or underimprovement in the neighborhood constitutes a condition which may adversely affect location ratings. Areas surrounding a location are investigated to determine whether incompatible racial and social groups are present, for the purpose of making a prediction regarding the probability of the location being invaded by such groups. If a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes. A change in social or racial occupancy generally contributes to instability and a decline in values.
951. Quality and Accessibility of Schools. When considering the question of schools, distances to the schools should be related to the public or private means of transportation available from the location to the schools. The social class of the parents of children at the school will in many instances have a direct bearing. Thus, physical surroundings of a neighborhood area may be favorable and conducive to enjoyable, pleasant living in its location. How- ever, if the children of people living in such an area are compelled to attend school where the majority or a considerable number of the pupils represent a far lower level of society or an incompatible racial element, the neighborhood under consideration will prove far less stable and desirable than if this condition did not exist. Frequently, upon payment of a fee, children in such an area could attend another school with pupils of their same social class. However, desirability of the neighborhood, when compared with competitive locations, might be adversely affected by the additional expense. In many instances where a school has earned a prestige through the quality of instruction and adequacy of facilities, it will be found that such attributes will be an element in maintaining the desirability of the entire area comprising the school district. In cases where schools are not immediately present, consideration is given to convenience and cost of required transportation.
973. Social Attractiveness. Satisfaction, contentment, and comfort result from association with persons of similar social attributes. Families enjoy social relationships with other families whose education, abilities, mode of living, and racial characteristics: are similar to their own. Appeal which is attributable to significant social influences is frequently indicated by the relationship of competitive locations to the paths of city growth. Locations which lie in a path of city growth generally indicate the presence of certain strong elements of appeal which in themselves have influenced the direction of residential development. Appeal is, however, purely relative and is to be measured by the attitude of the income group or the social class which constitutes the market for properties near the location under consideration.
982 (1). Adequacy of Civic, Social, and Commercial Centers. These elements of comfortable living usually follow rather than precede development. Those centers serving the city or section in which the development is situated should be readily available to its occupants. Schools should be appropriate to the needs of the new community; and they should not be attended in large numbers by inharmonious racial groups. Employment centers, preferably diversified in nature, should be at a convenient distance.
1360. Low ratings of the features in the Location category will not necessarily indicate that the estimate of remaining economic life should also be relatively low. The economic life estimate may be relatively high if the Rating of Property is high, although the Rating of Location may simultaneously be low. This is true because of the opposite effects produced on the economic life estimate and on the Location rating by threatening or probable encroachments of incongruous land uses and by threatening or probable infiltration of inharmonious racial groups . . . The infiltration of inharmonious racial groups will produce the same effects as those which follow the introduction of incongruous land uses, when the latter tend to lower the level of land values and lessen the desirability of residential areas.
1412 (3). In determining the extent to which a property exerts owner-occupancy appeal, the Valuator may be guided, in part, by the evidences indicated in recent sales . . . The degree of social and racial compatibility of the inhabitants of the neighborhood. The presence of socially or racially inharmonious groups in a neighborhood tends to lessen or destroy owner-occupancy
1850. Each Established Rating of Location will be numbered in accordance with a symbol consisting of the following:
a. Assigned Number. In each Economic Background Area the assigned numbers will begin with “1” and run consecutively.
b, Racial Occupancy Designation. This will be a letter indicating predominating racial characteristics, as follows:
c. Price Range Symbol. This consists of the first digits of the, lowest and the highest amounts listed in the price range.
d. Typical Property Value Symbol. This will consist of the first digit, or digits, in the amount listed as the value of the typical property. For example, Outlined Neighbor· hood Nu. 28 is found to be predominantly of white racial occupancy, with properties ranging in price from $7,000 to $12,000 and the typical property having a price of $9,000. The Outlined Neighborhood and the corresponding Established Rating of Location will therefore be assigned the following number: 28W7-12-9. If it is desirable to provide for more than one Established Rating of Location in the same Outlined Neighborhood for other significant price ranges, such additional ratings shall be designated by adding the letter A, B or C to the assigned number, thus: 28A, W7-12-9. Additional copies of Established Ratings of Locations for the use of Valuators as prescribed in Section 9, Rating of Location, shall be filed in the same manner as described above. Outlined Neighborhoods will be numbered on Outlined Neighborhood Maps in accordance with the above prescribed method. These maps are used in conjunction with Established Ratings of Locations but shall be filed in the File of Maps and Plats described below.
Illustrations, from above: Levittown 1948 courtesy New York Times; New York Times headline; median family wealth graph courtesy Inequality.org; and wealth gap graph courtesy Brookings.