This is the second of a three-part series.
The year was 1932, three years into the U.S. Great Depression, and the nation was deep into an unemployment and housing crisis, leaving an increasing number of families across the U.S. homeless or living in shantytowns built by the unemployed, otherwise known as “Hoovervilles.” Black Americans in particular, commonly “the last hired, first fired,” faced an unrivaled 50% unemployment rate nationwide, virtually double that of the national rate.
In 1934, one year after being elected, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) as part of the “New Deal.” The FHA was an institution designed to ensure that families seeking to purchase their first homes could access private loans backed by the federal government.
But all was not equal. Despite his record as a progressive, FDR famously wouldn’t concern himself much with the “minority question.” As a result, by 1939, FDR cabinet members overseeing the Homeowners Loan Corporation (HOLC), a lending institution for home loans sponsored by the FHA, officially designated areas in major cities where Black and immigrant groups resided as “undesirable” for lending, effectively blocking access to FHA loans for non-whites.
The HOLC believed that investing in areas where Black and immigrant communities lived would prove too “risky” for banks, and elaborated a way to identify this risk-assessment. On color-coded maps of urban cities, areas where Black or immigrant people were known to reside were marked by a “red line.” These maps were also accompanied by “area descriptions,” which we’ll see more from shortly.
Areas where slightly less racial diversity existed were marked on HOLC maps by a yellow line, indicating a “declining” area for lenders at risk of turning red, while blue and green lines indicated areas of more and nearly total white homogeneity, or where no Black or immigrant residents could be found, signaling high desirability–according to the HOLC–for banks to issue loans to prospective buyers–that is, white families–interested in purchasing a home in said areas.
In Los Angeles, redlined areas where Black and immigrant communities resided included neighborhoods south of downtown Los Angeles, or what’s still known as “South Central,” virtually all of East Los Angeles, as well some of today’s most “up and coming” neighborhoods, including East Hollywood, Silver Lake, Echo Park, and more.
In East Hollywood, the HOLC’s description of the area betrays high, but also quintessential Californian anxieties about “Negro” & Japanese-American “invasions” at the time:
“Rumors of scattered Japanese and Negro residents were not confirmed as none were located except upon the business thoroughfares. There is a concentration of Jewish families between Melrose and Santa Monica Blvd. east of Western Avenue. The population in general is heterogeneous, as is also the aspects of the improvements…The area is accorded a ‘medial yellow’ grade.”
Similarly, the Virgil Village community, along with parts of Silver Lake, including the Sunset Junction, where such trendy hangouts like Erewhon, Intelligentsia, The Black Cat, and even the Silver Lake Farmer’s Market now stand, were marked by the HOLC as “undesirable” for investment due to diversity in their areas:
“Scattered throughout the area are a number of small “B” grade apartments, bungalow courts and other multi-family dwellings. The population is highly heterogeneous with more than a sprinkling of subversive racial elements, there being several concentrations of Japanese and Negroes within the district. There is also quite a Jewish population adjacent to the synagogue which is located in the northern part. While by no means a slum district, the area is definitely blighted and is accorded a ‘medial red’ grade.”
The HOLC’s most telling description is of “south Silver Lake,” or Silver Lake boulevard going south of Sunset boulevard towards Historic Filipinotown:
“Population is extremely heterogeneous, there being a concentration of Japanese south [of] Temple St. and one of Negroes west of Alvarado between Bellevue and Beverly Blvd. In addition to these concentrations there is a sprinkling of Russians and Mexicans. These adverse racial influences which are noticeably increasing inevitably presage lower values, rentals and a rapid decrease of residential desirability.”
Also in these Area Descriptions, HOLC officials noted that the typical jobs held by Black and immigrant residents in redlined areas were those of “gardening…[blue-collar] services,” and other forms of day labor (like nursing or child-rearing).
By contrast, for areas such as Los Feliz, Burbank and Glendale, or even simply the “north” side of Silver Lake, HOLC officials generally marked the areas as blue or green. Jobs in these areas were typically of “white collar, business and professional men,” and also included “retired” residents.
The “Silver Lake and Moreno Highlands,” for example, or the area immediately west of the Silver Lake reservoir, received a “medial blue” grade, indicating higher favorability for investment. But it did not receive the highest grade of a “green” mark because of the area’s permittance of multi-family dwellings. Remember: multi-family dwellings or apartments were associated with working-class people, making such spaces vulnerable to occupation by Black and immigrant working-class families. Nonetheless, because HOLC officials found no Black or immigrant residents within the community (parentheses mine):
“Zoning conforms to deed restrictions…The topography of the area protects it from the subversive elements of adjacent lower grade areas (such as Virgil Village and East Hollywood to the west).”
So, to be clear, HOLC officials, along with support from local and municipal officials in Los Angeles, marked areas as “desirable” for investment given two factors:
I. White homogeneity and home-ownership, which indicated privileged families, inheritances, and other forms of affluence.
II. Deed restrictions, or written agreements, which outlined limitations for land use, including limitations like barring non-white buyers from purchasing homes on the land.
These stipulations were not just a matter of preference, either. As Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law (2017) points out about the FHA loan program, (bold and italics mine):
“The most important role of the federal housing administration was that it subsidized mass production builders of entire suburbs, and it did so with a requirement that no homes be sold to African Americans, and that every home in these subdivisions had a clause in the deed that prohibited resale to African Americans.”
In other words, rather than simply preferencing white neighborhoods for investment over Black neighborhoods, FDR’s historic federal housing program financed the creation of white suburbs at the expense of housing for Black Americans in Los Angeles. Consider the following, then, as exactly the the type of deed that HOLC officials were looking for banks to invest in, which is a text from the Los Feliz Hills Tracts 9050 and 9060, circa 1926:
Despite such language, as early as 1910, Pauline Ellis, a woman whom court documents refer to as “of Negro descent,” implying she was also partly of white descent, inherited a number of different homes once a part of the Letteau estate and began selling them to other Black home-seekers. The heirs of the Letteau estate then sued Ellis in an attempt to regain the properties, citing the deed restriction barring non-whites from purchasing homes in the area. The case went all the way to the California Supreme Court in 1932, where Justices ultimately sided with Ellis, but only on the following basis: That the deed restriction from 1905 was no longer enforceable given that the neighborhood since the deed’s writing had become changed not by one, but several Black families, whom the court felt were likely driving whites away from entering into the area with them.
In City of Segregation, author Andrea Gibbons calls the Letteau vs Ellis (1932) case “a bittersweet legal victory,” for exposing the degree to which whiteness as the dominant normality permeated every facet of “official” thinking at the time:
“In the view of an ‘impartial’ court, the [Letteau] lot had been ruined for any higher, white use. To protect what little exchange value was left for those white property owners invested in such areas and unable to sell their property to other whites as required by covenant, the court allowed [the deed’s] racial restrictions to lapse.”
Gibbons also notes that in the 1930s, when FDR’s government assigned itself the task of building housing, it by and large:
“…formalized and legitimated the racist beliefs espoused by white newssheets, helping to transcribe brutal racist ideologies into the legalistic language of academia and policy-making.”
Such brutal racist ideologies were also legitimated in the 1920s, however, as shown by policies like the National Immigration Act of 1924, a policy designed to restrict immigration from Asia and Africa to the U.S. In November of 1924, the L.A. Chamber of Commerce published an editorial in support of the Act, aptly named “The Los Angeles of Tomorrow,” stating the chamber’s mission to create an L.A. for whites only:
“For centuries, the Anglo-Saxon race has been marching westward. It is now on the shores of the Pacific. It can go no farther. The apex of this movement is Los Angeles County.”
These snippets of L.A. history allow us to make a few key notes:
I. A network of racist policies in Los Angeles are what created disparities between neighborhoods such as East Hollywood, Silver Lake, and more through Los Angeles, which persist to this day. The U.S. federal government, assisted by local and municipal governments in L.A., historically persuaded bank investment in areas like the highlands of Silver Lake, where high rates of white residents, and particularly white homeowners resided, while at the same time dissuading investment for Black and immigrant communities, most of whom resided in multi-family apartments and other rentals. The rationale for this dual policy was that Black and immigrant people, along with the rental units and other multi-family dwellings they could afford, created lower desirability for prospective homeowners, that is, white families, to move nearby, hence the designation of a “riskier” loan.
II. Black and immigrant communities have comprised neighborhoods such as East Hollywood and Silver Lake for decades, well before even World War II, sustaining neighborhoods to which they were once only segregated or restricted by homeowners associations, deed restrictions, and more, on humble and unstable incomes from service and manual labor. These communities not only survived, but also established their own businesses, inter-ethnic relations, and more despite legal and illegal discrimination against them.
III. White wealth through suburban living was exclusively subsidized by the government, not built on merit or “hard work.” In Los Angeles, suburbs benefiting from this policy included Burbank, Glendale, much of the San Fernando Valley area, Silver Lake, Los Feliz, the city of Torrance, and much more. Today, less than a century after the creation of the FHA loan program, homes that were built and purchased with support from the federal government continue to generate wealth for white families, and by extension, unrivaled purchasing power. This wealth, only bolstered after World War II with the G.I. Bill (another bill that was virtually useless for non-white people), now grants the heirs of FHA loan recipients disproportionate access to every kind of loan imaginable, including loans for “small businesses,” which, in a cruel twist of irony, thrive most when opening in historically dis-invested, formerly redlined Black or immigrant neighborhoods, leading to the displacement and even banishment of Black and immigrant people from areas that some of them have called home for over a century.
IV. There was never a correction for redlining policies in Los Angeles and other major cities in the U.S. Redlining wasn’t officially outlawed until Lyndon B. Johnson’s Housing Act in 1968, but even then, the Housing Act only barred anti-Black policies on paper. It did not build or subsidize mass building “projects” for Black and Immigrant people as FDR’s did for whites, leaving in place disparities between Black & white neighborhoods that would become more pronounced over time. As well, by the end of the 60s, a whole new set of punitive policies and “austerity” measures were written up to be imposed on Black & immigrant communities due largely to reactionary white suburbanites in “revolt” against non-whites.
It’s given these factors that today in Los Angeles people take it for granted that Black people make up more than 34% of the unhoused community in our city, despite accounting for only 9% of L.A.’s population in the most recent census count. Whites, who comprise 28% of L.A.’s demographics in the same census, currently account for 26% of the city’s unhoused population. The remaining 40% of L.A.’s unhoused community is made up of Native American, mixed-race people, and immigrant groups, including Latinx, Asian and Pacific Islander people.
But the unhoused community in Los Angeles is also a fundamental part of the two areas where Black and immigrant neighborhoods have seen disproportionate investment since the 60s: that of policing and incarceration in Los Angeles County, which maintains the largest jail system in the United States. As noted previously for readers of this blog:
“[…As recently as 2017] over a five year period, East Hollywood saw more expenditures for policing and jail time than the neighboring Los Feliz and Silver Lake areas combined. The LAPD spent at least $3,454,495 to cover costs for 6,852 people arrested in the area, whose time incarcerated totaled more than 15,000 days, or three times the rate of jail time for those arrested in either Los Feliz or Silver Lake. Over the same period, the LASD spent at least $1,487,910 for 516 people arrested, whose time incarcerated totaled nearly 10,000 days. Together, policing costs for arresting and jailing people in East Hollywood amounted to at least $4,942,405 over 25,000 days of jail time from 2012 – 2017.”
In turn, young people and families in many of the Black & Brown neighborhoods in Los Angeles once made separate and unequal by historic government policies now serve as “cash cows” for both L.A.’s unhoused industrial complex, as well as the city and state’s carceral system, all while gentrification also robs them of their communities. Together, these issues close the distance between our cities’ past and present inequalities, showing just how far historic racism has come, and how far it continues to span.