Housing Inequality: Baked in from the Beginning
Housing segregation in the United States did not happen by accident or because of individual prejudice. It was created by intentional policy and practice on the part of federal, state, and local governments. In many cases, Black and integrated neighborhoods were destroyed to make way either for segregated White public and private housing and amenities, or for segregated Black public and private housing. Whether it was in St. Louis, Austin, the various Levittowns, or in the nation’s capital, it was accomplished systematically and deliberately. (For a brief overview of this history, watch this video.)
Over several decades, a variety of mechanisms were created and enforced that had the effect of walling off decent housing from Black and Brown Americans.
In Rock Creek West (mainly Ward 3) in Washington, D.C., as in communities across the country, the segregation that exists today was deliberately created through removal of Black communities, formal exclusion of Black residents through covenants and redlining, and a host of practices that appeared racially neutral on their face, but that in fact, were intended to enforce racial segregation.
Forced removal of Black residents: The case of Reno
The best-known Ward 3 Black community that was destroyed to make way for White amenities and schools was Reno. North of the heart of the city, near Fort Reno, a former slave-holding plantation was subdivided into lots and sold after the Civil War. Reno was a sizable integrated community with a mix of rental properties and owner-occupied homes. As the city grew, the suburbs near Rock Creek Park became increasingly desirable. Over about a 25-year period, several attempts were made to force the Black residents out and to claim the land for White housing and amenities such as a park and Alice Deal School, established there as an all-White school. The last Black families were finally forced out in 1951.
Open exclusion of Black residents: Racial covenants
In Washington, DC, Reconstruction had produced many mixed neighborhoods. However, by the 1920’s, racial covenants began appearing, making it illegal to sell homes in White neighborhoods to Negroes, and by the middle of the 20th century, segregation was the rule, enforced by explicitly racist covenants banning sale of homes to Negroes.
Hidden exclusion of Black residents: The case of Belmont
Not all segregation was maintained by such explicitly racist means, however. In 1906, when a group of Black businessmen sought to build a Black upscale neighborhood to be called Belmont on the Friendship Heights/Chevy Chase border, their plans were undone slowly, over several years, by a web of modern tools that, race neutral on their face, undercut their financing and caused crippling delays that led ultimately to lost confidence and failure of the development.
As historians Bender and Flanagan put it, “… most importantly, Belmont’s demise shows that ostensibly racially neutral real estate practices can be used to discriminate against marginalized groups. The Belmont property did not have racial covenants, because they were understood to be unconstitutional in 1906. And it was mob violence that halted the development; legal posturing and sophisticated financing maneuvers exploited large scale social conditions to end Belmont. This exclusion would happen over and over again throughout the 20th century, and continues today.” (This video provides an overview.)
Belmont’s successful development would have had profound implications. The racial geography in and around Washington might have been very different, and Black investors and families would have built significant wealth. On the other hand, consider the Chevy Chase Land Company, owned today by the same White family who successfully blocked Belmont. Their holdings in Chevy Chase, Bethesda, Reston and elsewhere in the area easily total $750,000,000.
What might repairing past harms look like?
As noted above, the obstacles to housing equality took decades of deliberate actions to put into place. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 outlawed many of the formal practices, but other, seemingly race-neutral practices such as urban renewal have perpetuated inequality. To move forward we need a true commitment, a new narrative, and new policies and tools to create a new day in Rock Creek West.
Click here to read how NWOPCDC proposes bringing these elements together to create a new day in Rock Creek West.
Bender, Kimberly and Neil Flanagan. 2021. Four Black men developed a Montgomery County suburb to provide a better life for some in their community. They received something very different in return. Greater Greater Washington
Bender, Kimberly and Neil Flanagan. 2021(b).Belmont: The lost plan for a Black Chevy Chase.
Flanagan, Neil. 2015. Look how real estate professionals in 1948 perpetuated segregation in DC. Greater Greater Washington.
Flanagan, Neil. 2017. The battle of Fort Reno. Washington City Paper.
Rothstein, Richard. 2018. The color of law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America. LIveright. Accompanying video