Wealth, Housing, & Education, Part 2

Building Inequities

By Max Altman//June 21, 2022

This blog is based on information in SEF’s recent report, “Economic Vitality and Education in the South: The South’s Pre-Pandemic Position.”

In the 2015 Wallace Foundation Distinguished Lecture at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, William F. Tate — an influential education scholar who was then Dean of the Graduate School at Washington University in St. Louis, and is now the president of Louisiana State University — began discussing the 50s television show “Leave It to Beaver”, as one does.

Specifically, he noted that in many ways “Leave It to Beaver” captured the idyllic image so many people hold of the 1950s — an idealized suburban family with a wise father and caring mother learning lessons and growing together as the youngest child, Theodore “Beaver” Cleaver, gets into and out of relatively harmless mischief, makes mistakes and learns from them, and explores his world of mostly positive role models and seemingly endless American possibilities. Tate then raised a simple question — what if Beaver Cleaver was Black?

Even today, many people might be tempted to respond that while a Black Beaver would certainly have been likely to experience racism in that suburban context, the general concept of a suburban family learning and growing in their happy home could still have been enacted with a Black family. Tate, however, suggested this premise was effectively impossible in many cities. It was impossible due to laws, policies, and programs that were explicitly designed to prevent Black families from being present in such a situation. A Black Beaver Cleaver and his family would not have been there because actors in government, banking, the real estate industry, and a host of other fields had worked to make sure they could not be there.

In our last blog, we discussed the striking racial wealth and homeownership gaps that exist today and the enormous implications they have in areas such as health and education. For many, this is common knowledge, but what is not common knowledge is the purposeful and insidious way in which these gaps were constructed. These issues did not arise on their own. Rather, they were purposefully created.

In 1933, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) was created as a federal agency as part of the New Deal. Its purpose was to standardize and lower mortgage costs to provide a homeownership lifeline during the Depression to prevent default and foreclosure, and to purchase mortgages already in default to provide better terms for families who were struggling. As part of this process, it also created a series of maps intended to identify the lending risk for different neighborhoods. The agency assigned four different ratings to neighborhoods— A (best), shown on the maps in green; B (still desirable), shown in blue; C (definitely declining), shown in yellow; and D (hazardous), shown in red. 

These ratings were based on several factors, but one explicit factor was the neighborhoods’ ethnic and racial makeup, and the presence of even a single black family could earn a neighborhood a hazardous rating. These neighborhoods, as noted, were shown in red — redlined — on HOLC maps. Without any additional context, it is worth noting the impact this single procedure had on the makeup of American cities even today — an incredible 74%, three out of four, of the neighborhoods graded hazardous 80 years ago are low-to-moderate income neighborhoods today, and two thirds of them today are more than half residents of color.

In 1934, the Federal Housing Administration was created. It continued the redlining practices of the HOLC and explicitly refused to back loans to Black people, or even to White people living in neighborhoods near Black people. A decade later, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the GI Bill, was drafted to support World War II veterans with one of its main focuses on housing. House Veterans Committee chair John Rankin, a Mississippi Congressman and staunch segregation defender, worked to ensure the program be administered at the state instead of federal level, and to structure provisions to be as difficult as possible for Black veterans to take advantage of. This is, of course, only the explicit legal prevention — it does not include instances such as when a crowd pelted Black veterans with rocks as they tried to move into a housing development in Chicago in 1947; or the attacks and lynchings perpetrated against Black veterans across the United States when they looked for housing in better-resourced, and thus White, neighborhoods.

Further, the mortgages and loans were not actually administered by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Rather, while the VA could cosign, it was financial institutions who made the ultimate loan decisions, and these institutions could simply refuse loans to Black families. The level to which this strategy was put into play to refuse housing and loans to Black families was incredible – for example, of the 3,229 loans across 13 cities in Mississippi in 1947, only two went to Black families. This is also not unique to the South; of the 67,000 mortgages backed by the GI Bill in New York and northern New Jersey, fewer than 100 went to non-Whites.

These policies and their implementation successfully gave many White Americans opportunities to own their own homes, to move to better-resourced neighborhoods, and to raise families with access to key health, education, and other services; and successfully sequestered Black Americans together away from these possibilities. Systematic privileging of the one and harming of the other could then be easily enacted. Real estate agents consistently refused to show Black home buyers homes in White neighborhoods, instead only permitting them to see homes of lower value and often lower quality in Black neighborhoods. The homes they did see were often divided up into many tiny apartment-style dwellings rather than sold as a single house. Racial covenants in deeds banned homeowners from renting or selling to people of color. Zoning laws were implemented that kept White neighborhoods far from Black neighborhoods. While this level of racial explicitness in housing policy is gone in the United States today, many of these policies have led directly to those of our current system, which continues to have deeply inequitable outcomes.

This is only a brief overview of the myriad ways in which racist policies and practices created the homeownership and wealth gaps we see today. This situation did not happen by accident. It is not simply an effect of arbitrary social patterns, the human tendency to collect in homogeneous groups, or a coincidence of education and employment. The history of housing in the United States is one in which powerful Whites explicitly and purposefully consigned Black Americans to low-quality housing in neighborhoods that lacked resources within an economic system that was specifically designed to keep things that way. This system was created on purpose. It must be addressed on purpose.

While schools are understandably often the focus when we discuss education and career outcomes for students, there is an entire ecosystem of external factors that affect students’ opportunity to learn — what we describe in our Economic Vitality and Education in the South report as Social Determinants of Education. In Part I of this blog series, we discussed the ways in which the racial wealth gap, which is highly related to homeownership, affects educational opportunity; in many ways, this grew out of the situation we describe here. We noted that children from wealthier families are more likely to have access to early childhood education that improves future academic performance, to graduate from high school, and to enroll in and complete postsecondary credentials. In Part III, we will discuss more specifically how homeownership and housing today affect outcomes for children in school and beyond.


Max Altman is SEF’s Director of Research & Policy.