The Misrepresentation of Our Neighborhood: To the Feds Who Redlined Us

In 2015, a seventeen year old Latino youth named Leo Ramirez was shot and killed at an intersection I’ve walked to and from home for nearly three decades. I wondered why in our neighborhood specifically, young men like Leo seemed to lose their lives each year, with only candlelights and graffiti-sprayed “R.I.P”s to show for it. Had our neighborhood been forgotten, or set up to fail? At that time, I hadn’t known about the history of redlining in Los Angeles, but since then, I’ve uncovered more than a handful of cuentos about such policies to consider why so many of the places we call home are shaped as they are.

Almost a hundred years ago, in the 1930s, the U.S. population was 89% white, and its cities were filled with over 13 million people without work. Of these jobless masses, at least 2 million were recorded without housing, or living in “Hoovervilles,” rivaling today’s myriad of encampments across Los Angeles, colloquially known as Garcetivilles. Fortunately for many, however, a “New Deal” was on the horizon.

From the late 1930s to the late 1960s, the federal government teamed up with states and cities to build housing, recognizing that a stable place for residents to call home was a basic necessity for their ability to work and raise families. But there was just one caveat to Uncle Sam’s massive building experiment: If housing developers wanted subsidies or tax breaks, they had to build residential areas where only members of the “Caucasian Race” were allowed. This effectively barred nearly all Black and immigrant people from a shot at improved housing, and by extension, improved work opportunities and the ability to raise healthy, stable families in their communities. 

By the time the federal housing program came to an end in the late 1960s, housing was segregated across U.S. cities everywhere. And one of the most lasting consequences of the program was the creation of the “NIMBY,” or “Not In My Backyard” activists. After benefiting heftily from thirty years of redlining, these groups would and continue to successfully oppose attempts to integrate their wealthier, largely white vicinities with non-white, lower-income residents on the basis of protecting “property values.” This is what left neighborhoods like the one Leo and I grew up in largely stranded.

We jump forward from the 1960s to the present momentarily. Today, many Black and immigrant families in Los Angeles whose neighborhoods were redlined see higher levels of homelessness due to segregation, wage inequality, neglected housing, and other forms of disinvestment concentrated in our vicinities. As recently as 2019, for example, just three of fifteen districts on the east and south sides of Los Angeles contained 41% of the city’s homeless population, all of which were heavily redlined for their Black and immigrant residents during the Feds’ building boom. Neighborhoods in these areas include Skid Row and Boyle Heights, South Central, Leimert Park, the Crenshaw corridor, and more. Additionally, according to a point-in-place count from 2019, of an estimated 70,000 unhoused people, nearly 80 percent are Black and Latino residents. And with unabated gentrification, or increasingly less housing options for families due to a growing number of luxury lofts and other exclusionary, unaffordable living options, these numbers stand to rise further.

Gentrification in Los Angeles is also a segregated phenomenon of sudden, unseemly investment in land once considered “undesirable”–according to the U.S. government–on the basis of race, i.e. redlining. The Pacific Palisades, Malibu, and Brentwood, for example, or historically greenlined, largely white communities, have not seen such rapid, unorderly development. Rather, NIMBYs in these areas have mastered “slow growth,” or litigation to prevent new, more affordable housing units that would benefit Black, Brown, and white and asian communities all over the city. Yet this could have been avoided if Black and immigrant communities’ calls for fair housing policies had been taken seriously by federal and state offices over the decades, especially in the 1960s.

From Harlem to Watts, the 1960s counted the highest numbers of racial rioting in the history of the United States. While popular narratives about social movements during this decade focus on voting rights and desegregating the U.S. South, the fact is that social unrest in the 1960s was largely due to derelict housing conditions and minimal work opportunities, especially for Blacks, in the U.S. North. By 1968, then, when the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. set off hundreds of riots in cities everywhere, Lyndon B. Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission to name the root cause of the unrest. The Kerner report’s conclusions were cut and clear:

Fifty-six percent of the country’s non-white families live in central cities today, and of these, nearly two-thirds live in neighborhoods marked by substandard housing and general urban blight. For these citizens, condemned by segregation and poverty to live in the decaying slums of our central cities, the goal of a decent home and suitable environment is as far distant as ever.

Young Evacuees at 41st and Central, where the LAPD bombed the Black Panther Party Headquarters on December 8, 1969.

In hindsight, the commission’s report was simply describing “the hood” before it became common nomenclature to identify redlined communities as such. Despite the report, however, federal action to desegregate housing after 1968 would be minimal to non-existent. While the Fair Housing Act, signed in 1968, technically banned any form of racial discrimination in private or federal housing such as redlining, it largely lacked enforcement provisions and thus did little to integrate suburbs originally divided from the inner city along racial lines. This left Black and immigrant neighborhoods to depreciate, especially as manufacturing jobs and other employment available to “low-skill” workers would disappear in the following decades. In other words, even after civil rights gains were made on paper, policies of racial disinvestment were largely left intact.

By the early 1970s, moreover, housing by the Feds was in for makeover, as the Nixon administration suddenly froze all funds for new housing initiatives by the Department of Housing and Urban Development in a four-year moratorium or “shut-off” for the agency. This was followed by a devolution of authority in 1974, or passing the responsibility to build new housing to state and city governments, where the state of housing remains today.

Just like that, after 30 years of sponsoring all-white suburbs, the Feds abruptly left the business of housing when Black and Brown communities needed it most–including as veterans from these groups returned from war in Vietnam–and despite how they never saw even a tenth of the housing investment working-class whites did.

The final nail in the coffin for federal housing was that devolution failed to account for how most city and state budgets did not rake in enough revenue to invest significantly in desegregating neighborhoods–and thus, environments–via housing. The 1970s then saw the rise of Section 8 housing vouchers, which proved to be far more lucrative for landlords than for renters, and which now make up the Fed’s largest housing assistance program, providing an estimated 2.2. million people in the U.S.–and their landlords–with rental support annually.

Following Nixon’s moratorium, the 1980s saw less housing construction in the U.S. than in the previous decade. But in the “Golden State,” the rate for new housing construction fell abysmally; two decades after Nixon’s moratorium, the average rate of new housing fell from 215,000 new housing units a year in 1970 to just over 110,000 new units a year by 1999. This benefited older, white populations, while simultaneously burrowing Black and Brown communities further into strained housing environments–including Central American refugees displaced in the 1980s through “anti-communist” U.S. policy in the region, as well as Mexican migrants escaping an economically “lost decade” in their country due largely to U.S. debt obligations.

It’s conditions like these that youth like Leo and I inherited without our knowledge. But what I still had to learn at the time of his passing was how to outline the housing and living conditions ill-suited for the healthy development of most families in our community. Now, I can state for a fact that the census tract for the area Leo and I called home shows a Median Household Income of $34,000 a year, or roughly half of L.A. County’s, placing the majority of families in the area within the federal poverty level. Public records also state that at least 20% of people living on this tract rely on food stamps to pay for meals and groceries, a rate second only to that of the tract below, where 23% of residents rely on food stamps.

East Hollywood, or the larger area encompassing the blocks we grew up in is also 60% Latinx, where almost 90% of residents rent their housing. The area also saw at least $5 million in expenditures between 2012-2017 to arrest and incarcerate its Black and Brown residents, more than twice the rate spent in the adjacent Silver Lake and Los Feliz neighborhoods, which were bluelined and greenlined for their “desirable” white residents in the days of the Feds’ aforementioned building boom. Our neighborhood was in fact marked from the beginning, then, but now we mark its cuento to uplift a different future for Leo, yours truly, and more.

J.T.

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