There is a great myth of a “natural neighborhood” that has been pervasive in the orthodoxy of public planning discourse in the past century. This supposedly well-intentioned approach to city planning originated in the concept of “ideal” neighborhoods as consisting of 5,000 to 10,000 people, and is largely based on the mid-century concept of suburban towns: isolated collections of people in a cohesive, non-diverse network with an innate social network. The insidious aspect of this myth is in using it to justify the creation of residential class and racial divisions, in attempting to forge homogeneous “natural neighborhoods” in the midsts of pluralistic cities. Throughout the past century, hordes of public and private interests came together to use this myth to engineer class and race segregation.
The dubious presumptions about how a city ought to be organized supported by this myth have paved the way for many of the failures of urban neighborhoods, as most of these synthetic districts are engineered along class lines, and can have damning consequences for their residents.
But what are some of the actual causes of this segregation?
Redlining and Racial Mortgage Steering
This planning approach included using public money to construct affordable housing for low-income families while backing mortgages for homeowners in more affluent neighborhoods through the formation of the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) in 1938. While the former was ostensibly good-intentioned, the latter strategy often created districts of wildly disparate wealth within the same cities.
This architecture of segregation was both calculated and widespread. Ta-Nehisi Coates describes the FHA’s approach in his piece, The Case for Reparations:
“On the [FHA] maps, green areas, rated “A,” indicated “in demand” neighborhoods that, as one appraiser put it, lacked “a single foreigner or Negro.” … Neighborhoods where black people lived were rated “D” and were usually considered ineligible for FHA backing. They were colored in red.”
This practice of “redlining” effectively excluded black families from obtaining mortgages, forcing them toward more exploitative, predatory lenders who profited greatly from peddling high-risk loans in the form of “contract selling.” In Chicago, this meant that many black families were excluded from entire districts of the city until the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, which nominally ended the practice of awarding federally-backed mortgages on the basis of race.
Century Foundation policy associate Kimberly Quick points out: “Of all of the homeownership loans approved by the government between 1934 and 1968, whites received 98 percent of them.”
But the disparity in minority family homeownership did not resolve itself in 1968. Banks and other loan officers continued to target minority families—regardless of income level or credit histories—with flexible rate mortgages (more recently known as subprime loans). This racial targeting led to minority families accumulating debt at a much higher rate than their white counterparts and blocked them from owning their own homes when mounting debt led to foreclosures and bankruptcy.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the disparity in homeownership also helped drive a growing disparity in wealth during the past half century. Researchers Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro found that wealth is far more closely tied to home equity for black families than for white families. Their study showed that “while homeownership accounts for 63 percent of average black net worth, it accounts for just 38.5 percent of average white net worth.” With more at stake in the housing market, black families are therefore more susceptible to fluctuations in housing prices, such as the collapse seen in the mid-2000s.
Segregation in Public Housing Developments
When unable to purchase homes, lower-income families often relied instead on the growing stock of public housing. This housing was itself a tool of segregation for many cities: for example, in Chicago between 1950 and the mid-1960s, more than 98 percent of new public housing complexes were constructed in all-black neighborhoods.
This was not a unique phenomenon; cities such as Los Angeles, St. Louis, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York created similar patterns of socioeconomic breakdown in their affordable housing stocks. In St. Louis, the city was forced to demolish a large swath of its public housing, the Pruitt-Igoe complex, which had been subject to decades of overlook and neglect by a city government that left the apartment complexes in severe disrepair, visible in both crumbling facades and chronic issues of crime and poverty. The demolition ensued regardless of a declining vacancy rate and a nine-month rent strike by residents to protest the St. Louis Housing Authority’s lack of oversight, with the city relocating their remaining residents to less concentrated public housing. Other residents managed to resettle in affordable private housing.
The mid-century roots of this engineered segregation of wealth and poverty have persisted, and in many areas public housing has aided an increase in the concentrations of poverty. Since 2000, the number of people living in areas of high poverty has nearly doubled (from 7.2 to 13.8 million).
St. Louis Housing Segregation today
Map from: Al Jazeera America, August 18, 2014
Cities have long used zoning regulations as a tool to foster and enforce neighborhood divisions. Though at surface level these rules seem solely applicable to architecture and land use (i.e. limiting construction on a given block to three-floor residential buildings), they in fact hold the ability to shape the social and economic fabric of cities, and ultimately determine who lives where.
These tools are cities’ most essential methods of controlling growth and population density. Usually this density correlates with wealth, as higher-income residents tend to live in low-density zoned neighborhoods.
Density, like zoning, is more than an urban planning concept; it is regulator of a neighborhood’s quality of living, with higher density contributing to overcrowding, loss of natural light, higher noise levels, and increased garbage in public places.
A study by researchers at UCLA showed that cities with local governments more involved controlling zoning laws have higher levels of income segregation, and that these zoning laws effectively function to concentrate affluence and block lower-income families access to these areas.
Many low-density affluent districts have fought (and defeated) upzonings through the years under the auspices of ‘preserving neighborhood character,’ arguing against new higher-density housing development that could potentially bring an influx of socioeconomic diversity into homogeneous areas. The Boerum Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, citing “quality of life” issues, recently mounted a campaign to expand the historic district encompassing part of the area, so that any higher-density developments would first need the approval of the city’s Landmark’s commission. This started as a response to Mayor De Blasio’s plan to upzone areas and encourage mixed-income (pro-diversity) housing development. If successful, the campaign would block potential for housing diversity through development, and further cement the affluent, segregated status of the neighborhood.
Featured Image: Demolition of first segment of the Pruitt-Igoe Public Housing complex, broadcast live on March 16th, 1972