In its July 2020 summary, Miller Samuel Inc., a real estate appraisal and consulting company, reported 13,117 Manhattan apartments available for rent. This figure — a continuation of downward housing trends in the city since the onset of the pandemic and an all-time record in the fourteen years since Miller Samuel Inc. began collecting data — offers New York City an opportunity to begin unequivocally correcting a legacy of de jure housing segregation.
During the 1930s, the FDR administration created the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) and Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to insure mortgages for first-time homeowners who otherwise did not qualify for loans from banks. Since, as Richard Rothstein points out in The Color of Law, “the FHA’s appraisal standards included a whites-only requirement” (64), racial segregation became a federal mandate for the country’s mortgage insurance program. This racist policy — coupled with other government-sanctioned practices like redlining, blockbusting, racial zoning, racial covenants, and IRS exemptions for institutions tolerating segregation — yielded its desired effect: heavily segregated cities and suburbs across the United States and millions of Black Americans barred from accruing generational wealth. According to a Census report issued in 2019, the poverty rate for Black Americans is 21.7 percent, compared with just 8.7 percent of non-Hispanic white Americans.
Today, the ramifications of de jure segregation in New York City are ubiquitous. A 1930s HOLC redlining map, reproduced online by Richmond University’s “Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America”, labels 54 percent of Manhattan real estate “Hazardous”; this includes neighborhoods like Harlem and the Lower East side, famous for their Black and immigrant populations. Areas like the Upper East and Upper West side, historically inhabited by white Americans, received “Best” or “Still desirable” ratings. A clarifying remark from a HOLC appraiser in Harlem reads, “Formerly a very good residential neighborhood, it has deteriorated to very low grade with mixed population largely negro.” Comparing the HOLC redlined map of Manhattan with a 2015 New York Times map of the city’s racial makeup lays bare the history of New York City’s housing segregation: as real estate closer to central Manhattan became more appealing, Black New Yorkers were either denied opportunities to rent and buy apartments in affluent neighborhoods or already lacked the generational wealth necessary to relocate.
Any legislative remedies to such comprehensive housing segregation must be as imaginative, expansive, and well-coordinated as the policies which helped discrimination flourish. In his chapter “Considering Fixes”, Rothstein proposes the federal government buy a percentage of new houses on a market consistent with a metropolis’ African-American population, then sell them at “the price (in today’s dollars) their grandparents would have paid if permitted to do so” (202). While Rothstein correctly points out that “no presently constituted Congress would adopt such a policy and no presently constituted court would uphold it” (202-203), American political discourse has shifted left since the pandemic, leaving room for local lawmakers to champion reparative housing policies to a perhaps wary electorate.
As New York City becomes more progressive at the local level, elected representatives should begin ushering versions of Rothstein’s suggested remedies into legislative arenas. For
instance, The New York City Housing Association (NYCHA) could buy back a percentage of the 13,117 apartments for rent outside of Harlem proportional to Manhattan’s Black population in areas where poverty and subsidized housing rates are low, then make them eligible for the Housing Choice Voucher program. Amongst advocating for higher budgetary appropriations from the federal, state, and city government, elected city officials should pressure Governor Andrew Cuomo to make available the millions of dollars his administration has already approved for the NYCHA but has not yet released. With more capital, political willpower, and a readjusted budget, New York City can begin fulfilling its constitutional obligation to undo housing segregation.
Increasing the funding, scope, and precision of Housing Choice Vouchers effectively promotes integration. A 1995 Baltimore ACLU lawsuit involving discriminatory practices around Housing Choice Vouchers resulted in a victory for the city’s low-income Black population. Participants in the new program secured vouchers with enough funding to move from neighborhoods with poverty rates as high as 35 percent to areas with rates as low as 8 percent; from areas with an 80 percent Black population to ones with a 21 percent Black population. In an effort to ensure lasting integration, the federal and local government provided program participants with subsidized counseling to help them adjust to their new, predominately white environment.
There are many worthy bills in Congress and the Senate aimed at repairing, expanding, and reimagining Public Housing, but none of them explicitly emphasize reversing federally induced segregation in America’s housing markets. As more New Yorkers leave for homes outside city limits during the pandemic, lawmakers at every level must confront this crisis with reparative housing solutions.