Community Conversations: Racism and Housing - Jul 7th, 2020

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Panel discussion held via video-conference, with the facilitator asking questions from viewers.

Panelists are:

  • Crystal Haynes. Moderator. Journalist. Did a series called Priced Out that was nominated for a Northeast regional Emmy award.
  • Katherine Levine Einstein. Professor at Boston University. Author of Neighborhood Defenders: Participatory Politics and America's Housing Crisis
  • Manisha Bewtra. Planner. Former city counselor in Melrose
  • Leon Andrews. Director for Race, Equity, and Leadership (REAL) at the National League of Cities.

(Leon Andrews) We've seen tensions and uprisings around George Floyd and Breanna Taylor. There've been protests in over 1000 cities and towns. Our inability to have conversations will only lead us back to these issues over time. Five years ago, city leaders said "We don't want to be the next Ferguson". Today, there's more focus on structural inequities.

Mr. Andrews talks about his organization, REAL, Racial Equity and Leadership. They follow a framework of Normalize, Organize, and Operationalize. Normalize includes getting people to agree on terms and definitions, so we can have conversations where everyone's talking about the same thing. Organize means forming partnerships. Operationalize means looking at data.

We lead with race because the data takes us there. Race is the strongest predictor of success in this country, and of success in numerous areas. Six in ten prisoners are black or Latino. 57% spend more than 30% of their income on housing.

Racial equity means closing the gaps, so that race isn't a predictor of success. This has to be targeted in process, but universal in its goal.

Racism is an interconnected system. There's individual racism, institutional racism, and structural racism. There are multiple institutions involved, across many different leaves.

Mr. Andrews plays a video clip from Race: The house we live in. (This is part of a series called Race - the power of an illusion. The video talks about housing discrimination in the US, and that history is still with us.

(Katherine Levine Einstein) Ms. Einstein would like begin with a discussion of redlining, and thinking about Arlington as a region. Arlington had no redlined areas, but neighboring communities did. Today, those areas are largely occupied by black and latinx communities. Redlining was done with a combination of racial covenants, mortgages, and zoning.

Ms. Einstein suggests two books for background. The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein, and Segregation by Design: Local Politics and Inequality in American Cities by Jessia Trounstine.

Zoning was created to segregate people by race and class. Areas that have more zoning regulations tend to have more segregation. These regulations don't have to mention race. For example, single-family zoning generally means more expensive homes and segregation by class. Land use regulations can make it more difficult to build affordable housing, or for public housing to operate.

Dover Massachusetts has an inclusionary zoning bylaw that requires 25% of new housing to be affordable. This bylaw has never produced any affordable units. Having inclusionary zoning is not the same thing as having an inclusive land use policy.

Public participation processes have created political inequalities in housing. Residents can delay or stop projects, and this tends to empower older, whiter home owners. We did a study of Planning and Zoning board minutes from 97 cities and towns in Eastern Massachusetts, including Arlington. We made a list of all of the comments (approximately 4200 comments from 3700 commenters), and merged this information with voter files and property records. People who show up to these meetings and comment tend to be over 50, white, and homeowners. And they overwhelmingly oppose new housing, regardless of size or affordability.

Advantaged people in advantaged communities were more likely to oppose housing. This tends to shift development to less advantaged black and brown communities, which are less likely to come out in opposition. This increases the rate of gentrification in poorer areas.

Land use reform is a critical part of housing affordability, but it's just a part. There are lots of other things we need to do.

(Manisha Bewtra) Ms. Bewtra starts with a list of questions she'd like people to think about.

  • When did my family move to Arlington? What brought us here?
  • What do you know about the neighborhoods in your community?
  • What are the physical characteristics of these neighborhoods?
  • How do their socio-economic characteristics vary? Are there stereotypes?

Arlington used to be tribal land, in pre-colonial times. Some of our homes date back to the American Revolution. Even then, we were part of a region.

Arlington's schools have experienced a lot of growth. There are many new residents. 70% of Arlington's residents moved in since 2000.

59% of residents own homes and 41% rent. The home owners typically have higher incomes.

75.6% of residents are non-hispanic white. 19.5% are foreign born, and 22% speak a language other than english at home. However, Arlington is the second-to-least diverse of our neighboring communities.

Belmont, Winchester, and Lexington have more single-family homes than Arlington. The Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC, which created redline maps) discriminated against areas by race and religion.

Ms. Bewtra displays Arlington's redlined map, Arlington's zoning map, and a map showing the allocation of Community Development Block grants (CDBGs). Areas with higher HOLC grades tend to be zoned for single-family homes. Areas with lower HOLC grades tend to receive CDBG money.

Ms. Bewtra shows an Arlington deed from the 1920s, which contains a racial covenant. This deed came from a parcel that was formerly part of the Allen Farm in East Arlington. She did some research into the Allen family. Abbott Allen took over the farm from his father. William Allen was Abbott's son, and he expanded the farm's land holdings. Herbert Allen was Abbott's grandson. He split up the farm and sold it off as residential properties. This is an example of how land ownership creates generational wealth.

In 2017 a Boston Globe spotlight report found that the median worth of black families in the Boston area was $8. Just eight dollars. White families had a much higher median worth.

Ms. Bewtra displays a list of statements, and asks people to think about what they mean, and if they could cause someone to think they don't belong in a community.

  • We are full.
  • We want to preserve the character of our town
  • We want housing to go to people who already live here
  • You aren't from here.

Ms. Bewtra suggests watching a video called Deconstructing White Privilege by Dr. Robin DiAngelo. The phrase ``good schools vs bad schools is often coded language.

(Crystal Haynes) A recent investigation found significant discrimination against people with housing vouchers, including Arlington.

(Katherine Levine Einstein) The investigators had black and white people go apartment hunting. There was a huge disparity in the responses they received. White apartment seekers had an easier time scheduling viewings, and were much more likely to be shown additional units. The Federal government, local governments, and the private market have done a lot to discriminate. We can use fair housing laws to build cases against discrimination. We should also educate landlords about these laws.

(Crystal Haynes) Arlington has struggled with affordable housing.

(Leon Andrews) This is a large challenge for cities and towns. We may need to redefine affordability. Disaggregate AMI by race. Don't focus strictly on 80% AMI, to avoid reinforcing existing inequities.

(Crystal Haynes) How can we address this changing landscape?

(Manisha Bewtra) Numerous studies point to the need for more housing. This is a matter of supply and demand, but we also have to think about what gets built, and who it gets built for. What will change if we build more housing? Arlington offers an efficient commute and it's easy to walk around the town. A lot of things are intertwined with housing, like climate.

(Crystal Haynes) What kind of housing are we talking about?

(Katherine Levine Einstein) It's not only hard to build apartment buildings. It's also hard to build "middle" housing like townhouses. There are two problems in the Boston area: there's not enough market-rate housing, and there's not enough affordable housing. There are lots of ways that local government can address the shortage of market-rate housing. Local governments have less influence over affordable/subsidized housing.

(Crystal Haynes) What's the intersection between single-family zoning and racism?

(Katherine Levine Einstein) Single family zoning bans apartments; it's exclusionary. It only allows people who can afford single-family homes.

(Manisha Bewtra) Single-family zoning is how you slow-walk into a housing shortage. Housing diversity used to be more common.

(Crystal Haynes) We have a comment from a person who's looking for a place to live, but they're not looking in Arlington. They're afraid to walk down the street here. What can we do about this?

(Leon Andrews) There's no easy answer for how to build trust. We should start by asking why this person doesn't feel welcome. Next, you have to acknowledge why the community isn't welcoming. Was there something intentional that caused Arlington to be unwelcoming? There's usually a pattern involved. You can start by creating spaces to have these difficult conversations, where you acknowledge history and commit to making structural changes.

(Manisha Bewtra) People of color and women have a calculus to determine if they're in a safe space. Subtle language can make a big difference.

(Crystal Haynes) What's the best way to invest in affordable housing?

(Katherine Levine Einstein) Local governments can only do so much. Especially when they're cash-strapped. They can make local land use policies more accommodating. State and Federal governments can provide cash infusions to affordable housing projects.

(Manisha Bewtra) Local governments can add staff, to pursue grant funding, etc.

(Leon Andrews) We should center voices of the BIPOC community in the work that we do.

(Crystal Haynes) Any closing thoughts?

(Manisha Bewtra) This is a tough topic, which requires systemic change, as well as examining our own preferences and actions.

(Katherine Levine Einstein) When talking about housing, think about who's voices are in the room.

(Leon Andrews) I encourage people to push their understanding of these issues. Try to understand why change is needed.