The Destructive Legacy of Redlining (and How to Break the Mental Map)

Redlined map of Houston / Mapping Inequality, Redlining in New Deal America

In the 1930s, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC), a government-sponsored corporation that issued mortgages, would send lenders and realtors out into communities with a standard form they were asked to fill out. The form was meant to capture data about areas’ characteristics and figure out which had “favorable influences,” such as good schools or views, and which had “detrimental influences,” such as “obnoxious odors, a lack of utilities, or a high number of African Americans or immigrants,” explained Rob Nelson, a professor at the University of Richmond, during a session at the Urban Land Institute’s virtual fall meeting. The forms were meant to calculate the “level of infiltration” by African Americans and immigrants. Areas with high levels were marked as “high risk” areas for mortgage lending.

What HOLC and other lenders had been doing for decades would later be named redlining. The term redlining came from the comprehensive color-coded maps HOLC and other lenders would create, which would indicate “security grades” for mortgage lending. According to Nelson, grade A or B grade neighborhoods were colored in green and blue, grade C in yellow, and the lowest level, grade D, in red.

Redlined map of Portland / Mapping Inequality, Redlining in New Deal America
Redlined map of St. Louis / Mapping Inequality, Redlining in New Deal America
Redlined map of NYC and its boroughs / Mapping Inequality, Redlining in New Deal America

Grade A neighborhoods were “hot spots for construction,” often in the suburbs, and entirely white. Grade B neighborhoods were “still desirable” and “good for lenders.” Grade C neighborhoods were somewhat “infiltrated by lower grade populations,” and grade D neighborhoods experienced the “detrimental influence of undesirable populations.” In these neighborhoods, HOLC urged lenders to “refuse to make loans.” These predominately African American areas were deemed “hazardous,” Nelson explained.

In Richmond, Virginia, D neighborhoods, marked in red, were found closer to the city center, while C neighborhoods were a little further out, and A and B neighborhoods were in the suburbs. “Almost all A, B, C neighborhoods had no African Americans, while D neighborhoods were predominately African American. The pattern was crystal clear.”

Redlined map of Richmond / Mapping Inequality, Redlining in New Deal America

Nelson argued that other than the racial composition of the A and D neighborhoods, HOLC and other lenders had no clear sense of the demographics of these areas. The A neighborhoods weren’t further examined — they were assumed to have multi-generational wealth and the “best people, really.” In the D neighborhoods, “comprised mostly of Negroes,” there “was no occupations listed; they were assumed to be domestic workers or gardeners.”

C neighborhoods were defined by the degree they were influenced by D neighborhoods. A neighborhood categorized as C could include a “predominately white school in a Black area, or include ‘mostly respectable’ people who happened to live too near Negro areas.”

The conclusion from Nelson’s analysis is that lenders found African Americans to be a “profound threat to property values. Just having proximity to African Americans, who may be pedestrians walking through the neighborhood, would have material consequences.”

The same exact patterns of grading communities and redlining existed in a staggering 200-plus cities, both large and small, across the U.S. “This was structural racism that was state-endorsed.”

One of the results was to “direct public and private capital to white families in the suburbs.” In effect, redlining became “one of the greatest mechanisms for white families to generate wealth and for denying African Americans the opportunity.”

The legacy of redlining, which occurred over the course of many decades, continues to impact American society. As Kofi Boone, FASLA, professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University explained at last year’s ULI conference, without the opportunity to accumulate wealth through home ownership, African Americans to this day have little to pass on to future generations to inherit. “Today, the average white family has $122,000 in wealth; Latinx family $1,600; and African American family, just $1,300,” Boone said.

The African American communities denied access to home ownership also experienced other forms of public disinvestment. As Nelson pointed out, a recent study from The New York Times found that historically redlined communities had “much more asphalt and concrete and much fewer street trees or parks.” This resulted in higher levels of the urban heat island effect. These areas are now highly correlated with increased pollution and asthma rates. “These places are much more vulnerable,” and their populations have “far lower life expectancy, with higher rates of diabetes, asthma, kidney disease, and hypertension,” he said.

Nelson believes the racist housing policies of the past can be undone through “anti-racist real estate practices.” The past approach for wealth building can be “reversed.”

The moderator, Lisa Gordon, President and CEO of Atlanta Habitat for Humanity, then turned the discussion over to Dr. Mindy Fullilove, a psychiatrist, professor of urban policy and health at The New School, and author of Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It. Dr. Fullilove has been focused on how to undo the “mental map” of redlining.

Dr. Fullilove said on their surface, the redlining maps are beautiful, almost like cartoons. But in reality, they represented a total stratification of cities, the “trashing” of cities. (She added it’s important to note there were no redlining maps of the suburbs).

Thinking like a psychiatrist, Dr. Fullilove said the maps have had a powerful impact that help maintain an “American apartheid in our heads” and create a “paradigm in our hearts.” She then outlined a few projects that are breaking down the hierarchies established by the redlining maps in Manhattan, particularly the northern Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights.

In 2005, Dr. Fullilove founded Hike the Heights, a program that helps residents of northern Manhattan cut across neighborhoods once graded A,B,C, and D and break down the “mental map” that still segregates communities.

The program created a walking and biking map of a newly imagined linear North-South trail that begins from Central Park and ends at the Cloisters museum at Fort Tryon park in the northwestern edge of Manhattan.

After expanding her efforts by forming the City Life Is Moving Bodies (CLIMB) community group, Dr. Fullilove and team worked with designer Sagi Golan to fine tune a map they pass out at walking events and festivals.

Hike the Heights map / Sagi Golan

The map’s route was entirely guided by the community, including children who helped with data collection. Dr. Fullilove then consulted with an urban designer, who advised that the trail, which children said looked a bit like a giraffe, needed a head, so it was decided that it should end at the Cloisters. The team added in east west components as the trails moves north south.

As groups of upper Manhattanites organized by CLIMB began to walk the trail, the community started to clean up derelict parks and revitalize “scary places” that had been occupied by junkies with children’s art, like papier-mâché giraffes.

Hike the Heights / ioby.org
Hike the Heights / ioby.org

The new investment of community energy into these green spaces caused the city government to follow suit. CLIMB’s advocacy work led to the New York City government to invest $30 million in restoring Highbridge Park in Washington Heights.

New staircase at Highbridge Park / Flickr

Dr. Fullilove’s former students also started Design The We, an inventive research and planning project in New York City aimed at “un-designing the redline.”

Still, the legacy of redlining is being felt to this day. As Dr. Fullilove explained, redlining maps set up neighborhoods for urban renewal in the 1960s and 70s. “The refusal to invest led to communities to become blighted and then to be destroyed through urban renewal,” she said. Urban renewal also meant displacement.

Today, that displacement only continues. Too often urban development or revitalization efforts “happen to communities, not with or for them.” Community development is still too often a box to check; the developers “aren’t really listening.”

The foremost issue exacerbating community gentrification and displacement is the lack of affordable housing. An increasingly large share of the population is paying nearly half of their income on rent, which is unsustainable. The amount spent on housing should be around 30 percent.

Public housing no longer receives much support or investment, so housing development has been given over to the private sector. The issue is that private developers can’t afford to develop low-cost housing; they need further subsidies.

The lack of affordable housing is in turn “causing white people to gentrify previously redlined communities,” Dr. Fullilove said. “When I say ‘white people,’ it’s arbitrary, it’s who we think of this week.”

One way to slow this process down is to further densify communities and increase the amount of affordable housing available in every neighborhood. “We need to make the whole city fabulous at all price points — everywhere.”

Another way to be more responsive to existing urban communities is to diversify the people making development decisions. Showing a photo of the lenders who redlined New York City in the 1930s, it’s all white men. And then showing a photo of a group of community planners today, there is a “melange of people” providing different perspectives.

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