A black crow is in the foreground, with symbolic illustrations of American institutions as part of the pink and orange background. Artwork by Lyne Lucien.
Kidada speaks with New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie about the legacies of discriminatory housing policies in the United States and their impact, primarily on Black and other marginalized communities, from the beginning of the nation to today, as well as how they might be addressed in the future.

 They examine the differences in how that discrimination manifests explicitly and implicitly, as well as the roles both institutions and individuals play in contributing to these housing problems.

They also discuss ways in which federal and local governments can play a positive role in expanding the availability and security of living spaces for lower income Americans to improve their circumstances.

View Transcript

Kidada E. Williams: This is Seizing Freedom. I’m Kidada Williams. In our latest companion episode, we followed the Deckards, a Black family who fled Texas and seized their freedom in Los Angeles. But the California hills weren’t lined with gold for Black families. 

As the Deckards tried to secure housing and employment, they experienced racial discrimination along the way. And a century later, Black families still face insidious forms of segregation and discrimination in the housing market all over the country.

Today, I speak with Jamelle Bouie, opinion columnist at The New York Times, where he writes about history, politics, and culture. We talk about housing discrimination, the policies needed to combat it, and why secure housing is part of fighting for a more equitable society.

Jamelle has written extensively about racism in housing, and I’m a big fan of his work. So I wanted to know how Jamelle first became interested in covering this topic.

Jamelle Bouie: I think what first sparked my interest in sort of learning more about the history of American cities—about the history of America’s infrastructure, about housing—the event was that summer, I had gone to St Louis, to Ferguson, to cover events happening on the ground there. 

And part of what I ended up learning is just the extent to which the region is kind of starkly segregated by race and class, which sort of pushed me in the direction of wanting to have a better understanding of these structures and forces. And sending me down a real rabbit hole for quite a while. 

KEW: The rabbit hole led Jamelle to look at the long history of shady housing policies in America, as well as more recent examples of discriminatory practices. He came across a 3-year-study conducted by the Long Island-based newspaper Newsday

The newspaper sent 25 pairs of undercover testers—Black and white, Hispanic and white, and Asian and white—to see what kinds of housing local real estate agents would recommend. The paper wanted to know if those recommendations—about the type of housing and where it was—would change based on the tester’s perceived racial identity.

Newsday recorded 240 hours of meetings between testers and realtors, and published their findings in 2019. That same year, Jamelle wrote an essay for The New York Times’ opinion section titled “The Racism Before Our Eyes,” which explored the implications of the Newsday study.

JB: Realtors would refuse to show listings or conduct house tours for nonwhite testers, would steer them away from predominantly white neighborhoods and on the flip side, they would steer white testers away from Black or Hispanic neighborhoods, while also showing more listings and allowing them to see homes without proof of mortgage ready financing, right? So they were given a wider variety of homes to look at without actually having to provide any evidence if they could afford the home. 

I think it is, and has been fashionable to talk about implicit bias. But I think what is overlooked is the extent to which explicit bias is still pretty common, and it’s pretty common in housing and employment.

KEW:  So I want to follow up on that. How do you see the difference in terms of implicit and explicit discrimination in housing policy and practice?

JB: There is simply within American society and within sort of American capitalism, this historic relationship between Black people and sort of the absence of value, right? Like so, under slavery, Black Americans were literally capital and after…after the Civil War kind of destroys that particular relationship, what replaces it is a sense of de-valuing; that Black people cannot be…they’re no longer capital, so they are simply now cheap labor—the cheapest labor, if possible—and the advent of segregation later in the 19th century sort of reinforces this idea that Black people and Black lives were sort of worth less on the market, as it were, than their white counterparts. 

And all of that stuff is kind of like, embedded in capitalist markets in the United States. And it’s embedded I think in pretty clear and obvious ways. So even before you get to actual, institutionalized racial discrimination in housing—by way of federal law, by way of realtors’ associations, et cetera, et cetera—you have the simple fact that if you are a Black home buyer in, say, the 1920s, you’re probably never going to be able to get a loan.

Especially if you’re trying to, you know, build a home within a Black community, because that’s understood to be devalued—of less value—and the the codification of this in the thirties, in the forties, is in some way…it’s not an innovation; it’s putting into law existing practices and that kind of carries over through time. 

So when we get to the present, right? Sort of, even as we’ve at least dismantled the most explicit forms of discrimination in housing markets or in job markets, it’s still the case that there is this association between Black people and Blackness and sort of a lack of value, a lack of market value, an absence of value that shows up, right? You know, whether explicitly turning a Black buyer away or steering them away from a neighborhood they could afford; or whether it is the, you know, the long overhang of past institutions and structures; or whether it’s sort of a bunch of choices and decisions that are not explicitly racist by the person, but have that implication—it’s all happening on kind of the same playing field.

I think it’s important to emphasize explicit discrimination just because I think people kind of underrate it. But it’s also important to note that whatever the form of discrimination, it is happening in this larger context of a highly racialized American capitalism.

KEW: And I think you’re absolutely right about the sort of bigger system, but also the importance of the individuals within it. And in the piece, you point out that one of the reasons why the Newsday investigation is meaningful is because it shows that individual people were being explicitly racist. Not just the sort of nameless, faceless systems—like real estate, banking, government—which have, and do sanction racism. But why was it important to stress the individual actors like the real estate agents or even landlords or lenders?

JB: I think that even in this moment, in these last few years, of a heightened awareness of racism—you hear the phrase  “systemic racism” kind of bandied about constantly. And, you know, several years ago, implicit racism kind of served that role as well. Even in this world of much greater consciousness of these things. I think there is still this tendency to say, well, we’re—nonetheless, we are past the period of explicit discrimination. Now, what we’re dealing with now, are the overhangs of past discrimination. 

And I think it’s important to say that that’s not actually true, that there is actually still a good deal of explicit discrimination happening. And that pointing out that there are particular individuals who do this is part of doing something about it, right? It has implications for policy. It means we’re not just trying to craft…compensatory policy routines, but you’re also dealing with like actual enforcement giving people the tools to sort of like push back against explicit discrimination. 

And I think it poses a challenge to institutions like the Supreme Court, which is very eager to say that we’re past the era of explicit discrimination, therefore we do not need this stuff. But if we’re not—or at least, or at least explicit discrimination no longer takes the form of, you know, Jim Crow, but there’s still explicit real estate discrimination happening, still explicit employment discrimination happening, and policy should be used to tackle it.

KEW: Explicit and implicit discrimination work hand in hand to make it hard for Black families to own property or accumulate wealth. And, as the Deckard family discovered in moving from Texas to California, geography doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. Jamelle lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, so I asked him about the history of racist housing policies there.

JB: Charlottesville, I think like most American cities, most American towns, has been structured by explicit racial discrimination and housing, going back the beginning of the 20th century and continuing on through. Whether those were racist covenants, eventually outlawed by the Supreme court in 1917, I believe, but which enabled owners to put into the deed of their home that this could only be sold to a white person, not a Black person or, commonly, a Jewish person. On the west coast this often included covenants against Chinese and Japanese Americans. 

So, whether it’s racist covenants; whether after those are illegal, it is the, you know, it’s single family zoning—which is pretty explicitly understood to be a way of getting around the court’s prohibition on direct racial discrimination in zoning…single family zoning, simply meaning that a parcel can only have a a one family per unit home, detached, often with high setbacks, large lots—things basically designed to make price of the home as close as possible to the price of the land, which is to say, to make the price of the home very expensive and thus lockout, directly, low-income people. 

But in the case of Charlottesville, this often meant locking out African Americans, although it should be emphasized, like, low-income people of all races are affected by this. And then, you know, you have Charlottesville’s own experience with urban renewal—bulldozing Black neighborhoods to build shopping centers, or to build highways, or, you know, thoroughfares through the city—continuing into the present, where a quarter of the residents live under the poverty line.

Those are disproportionately the city’s African American residents, who account for about 20% of the city’s population and who are the residents who are most likely to be pushed out of their neighborhoods because of rising home prices as a result of these racist supply restrictions imposed over the past century. 

And this racist displacement and who are—when stuff does get built—are unable to take advantage of it because of…because there aren’t very many middle-class jobs here, because they have been locked out of wealth building, locked out of opportunity for so long. I kind of think…I don’t think every place can be a microcosm for these things, but I think many places can be a microcosm for these, these forces and Charlottesville certainly is a microcosm.

KEW: Right, and I think you see the same thing in Detroit, where I live. You see it in places like Brooklyn; you see it in Washington, D.C.; you see it in a number of places around the country. We’re seeing that the places where white people are wealthy, highly educated and claim to hold nice and racially progressive ideas are also hotbeds for NIMBY-ism. Meaning they say one thing, but then do another, specifically using their influence to push back against any changes in policies. So how does class play a role in the current conversations on changing housing policies?

JB: One of the striking transformations to the American economy over the last 50 years has been policymakers making an explicit decision to generate as many returns…as much returns in capital as possible, to allow wages to stagnate and even decline, to reduce inflation in some consumer goods, but allow inflation— in the cost of housing, in the cost of education, in the cost of health care—to let the private market deal entirely with the construction of new housing, to the exclusion of rehabilitating and building new public resources. 

So one effect of this is that if you are a regular middle class person, there’s a pretty decent chance that your largest asset is your home, and it’s also your largest store of wealth. We have systematically gutted anything that would provide  economic security in people’s lives, so that your home ends up being your primary store of value. That’s what will keep you afloat after you retire. 

I think conversations about housing are so tilted towards fast growing parts of the country that we can forget that they’re putting in places that are not fast-growing and have very different problems. But for places that are fast growing, this ends up kind of strangling their growth; it ends up preventing people from being able to stay in.

I think that if, you know…if you knew that when you retired you would have an adequate income to live a comfortable retirement—that you weren’t worried about bankrupting yourself over healthcare, that you want to…you maybe you want to pass on some assets to your children, but it’s not integral to your survival that you have the most valuable house possible—I think things would look a little differently. 

It’s in a world of scarcity, a world of artificial scarcity, and in a world of profound economic insecurity, you have a class of somewhat secure people—homeowners—doing everything they can to make sure that their principal asset retains as much value as possible.

KEW: This is Seizing Freedom, I’m Kidada Williams. I’m speaking with New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie about the legacies of discriminatory housing policies in the U.S., and their impact on Black communities. Today, there are still barriers for Black communities to owning property. In addition to rising prices of housing, gentrification also plays a role in keeping Black people from buying or selling property. But Jamelle wanted to complicate that idea.

In communities where gentrification is occurring and historically Black neighborhoods are changing, how does explicit and implicit discrimination, or what some people call ‘a tax on Blackness’, in housing show up?

JB: If you think of gentrification as not simply, you know…it’s not gentrification as being the result of these larger forces in the housing market, that the reason it becomes profitable to buy up a home in an historically Black neighborhood and flip it for three times its value is because housing is incredibly scarce across the entire area.

There are plenty of places that are…that would be desirable on their own merits just because they’re close to the downtown or they have older historic housing stock or whatever, but restrictions in housing supply, plus high demand, end up supercharging that. 

Granted, there’s a bunch of…[laughs] there are a bunch of ways anti-Blackness shows up. There are some people who move into these neighborhoods and do have real contempt for the existing residents, who see the Blackness of the area as a detriment and seek to find a way to shield themselves off from it, impose sort of their sense of what is normal onto the area. And that sense is I think often tied to their, you know, race and class position.

That, to me, is the visible face of it, the visible face of gentrification is…are those individual interactions, are the fact that even, you know, asset-poor but influence-rich white residents move in, and they can attract capital by virtue of who they are that builds these immediate resentments. 

Let’s say you are a Black family that lives in one of these neighborhoods, and let’s say you have access to at least some capital, right—you have savings, you have an inheritance, you have something—let’s say you want to go in and leverage those assets to get a loan, to improve your home—to improve the value of your home—to try for yourself to capture some of the value created by demand. There’s a decent chance that the bank is going to deny you a loan, because banks deny Black families loans in a discriminatory manner.

Past denial of loans—past denial of opportunities—will make it less likely if you’re living in one of these gentrified areas that you are even able in the first place to purchase a home, to establish some sort of beachhead against these changing forces.

Gentrification happens when there’s infill development in historically Black neighborhoods, because the real estate there is a little cheaper than historically white neighborhoods. And the extent to which policy makers protect affluent, predominantly white neighborhoods from infill development and then impose it on historically Black neighborhoods—making it more likely that people get displaced—I think is an act of racial discrimination, right? 

The correct policy move would be to allow development that raises property values in places where property values are already high, ‘cause people will have a better chance to absorb the impact of the increase. Imposing that stuff on, you know, places where property values are not already high, ends up—in the absence of anything to protect the people who are there—ends up becoming a problem. 

But the thing I always like to emphasize is that this is happening in a larger nexus, right, of policy decisions that are producing this. So it’s not that these individuals shouldn’t be better—they should—but that like ultimately who’s to blame are the policymakers for creating the circumstances for these sorts of events.

KEW: So, one institution that can address this, in part, is the federal government. In 2021, the Biden administration called to expand the use of vouchers for rental assistance so more low-income people would be eligible for them. They’ve also called to expand vouchers for those who manage housing for low-income people. And while Jamelle thinks this is a good start, he believes there’s more that can be done.

JB: The federal government can do a lot, but there are limits to what it can do. So in the world where, you know, the Congress does pass law in accordance with the Biden administration’s plans—which is to say, discouraging exclusionary zoning, tying federal funding to opening up zoning laws and producing more housing, particularly in places of high opportunity—I think that would be a net good. 

But as you go down the line, so much of the work is going to happen at the state and, especially, at a local level because the fact of the matter is that cities and counties tend to have the most influence when it comes to dealing with zoning, dealing with housing, dealing with housing equity. Which is a problem, right? Because this actually is…these are issues that should be dealt with at a higher level than the local level, where they easily can be captured by, you know, the most affluent residents. 

So ideally, right, these decisions would be made at a regional level, at a state level; not at like a hyper-local level. I think this is a really underrated thing, but it’s important, right? So we are half a century removed from a point where policy makers at any level of government had intimate experience with just constructing housing and running housing developments.

Part of the reason, I think, why there’s a turn towards vouchers and vouchers aren’t a bad thing, right? One of the policy things I support from the Biden administration—and that housing activists have made note of—is turning Section Eight into an entitlement like SNAP or Medicaid, so that once you hit an income eligibility threshold, you just get a Section Eight voucher, and landlords can’t reject it. I would think that would be a tremendous help, in addition to tenant protections and everything along those lines. But part of the reason we’ve turned to vouchers is because it doesn’t really take much to administer, right? You just send someone a check, effectively. 

But if we’re thinking in terms of not just subsidizing housing, but creating new housing supply, then the government has to be an important part of that process, which means it has to get involved in the financing and construction of housing units. And that requires expertise. You actually have to find people who know how to do that, and do it well, and do it effectively. And so states and localities, I think, should be looking at how they can build up the capacity to do this, right? Revitalize their housing authorities, find people with the knowledge and expertise that can do this, and do it well, and do it effectively and do it without, without spending too much money.

KEW: And I think what that also underscores is the extent to which we as Americans have erased the early history of public housing, when the majority of the population absolutely loved it, right? In those early years, when only white people were allowed to live in public housing, it was adequately maintained. It was seen as a public good. 

But then, as you noted, once you move past the discriminatory policy non-white people get to move into those spaces, then you start to see the rise of the stigma, the failure to maintain the sort of…the property, et cetera. So, if we have a will to harness and organize to address this matter, we can solve some of the issues of explicit discrimination in housing. But what if we, as a country, don’t have the will?

JB: I’m not sure really, that we do. And so, given that, what’s next? And I think what’s next is that, although there may not be at this moment, or in the near medium term future, the will to do things on a national level, there are, you know…Americans are so accustomed thinking about policy as being a national thing, but there are polities that are not simply national—there is your local government, your local polity; there’s your regional polity; there’s your state polity—and on those levels, I think it is possible to take constructive action. 

One of the, you know, perhaps upsides of federalism in the United States is that if you can get your hands on some funding, right—If the federal government could open up the spigot for localities to experiment—then you could begin to perhaps make progress. If the federal government will say, “Hey, we will give you 50 million dollars to rehabilitate and build some new public housing”, that is an opportunity to begin working on this and at least begin building public support on a smaller level for the kinds of policies that should be deployed nationally. 

But to actually solve housing problems for the large number of Americans who do not have the income to purchase an affordable unit on the market, that may take building up from the bottom—experimenting on a policy level from the bottom—and building support for these things bottom up, until it can become something viable for the federal government to embrace.

KEW: As the government experiments with policy, people are still expressing dissatisfaction from the bottom up. In the last year and a half, we saw renters go on strike, calling for evictions to be placed on hold. It hardly seemed just: that so many people lost income during the COVID-19 pandemic, but were still expected to pay rent. 

Their pressure worked: a national eviction moratorium was temporarily issued by the CDC. Once it expired in the Fall of 2021, though, state and local governments were left to try and prevent what the National Low Income Housing Coalition calls “an eviction tsunami.” 

Protesters also took the opportunity the pandemic provided to demonstrate having had enough with negligent landlords. Some renters even bought out their landlords, like a group of tenants in Minneapolis did in 2020. The result is that renters and homeowners alike are now asking bigger questions about how and where they want to live.  

JB: I think to the extent that the pandemic has changed anything—and maybe it’s just, like, made it very apparent that there is just a shortage of housing units in the country, right? In New York, last year, I read all these stories of rental prices dropping precipitously because people were leaving the city, and San Francisco saw the same thing. All the big cities all saw this. And that to me is just sort of evidence on its face that like, you know, when there’s no more demand for housing in the city then the prices go down, which means that when the prices are high there must be…there must just not be enough housing to go around. 

And so I think that that should’ve at least been evidence that the solution, or part of the solution, is going to have to involve the construction of many, many, many, many, many, many housing units. And, to the extent that policymakers may have become a little more comfortable with intervening directly in these markets as a result of the pandemic, that would be…I think that’s a good thing. 

KEW: And as the pandemic continues to shift major parts of how we live and work, some people are attracted to alternative, cooperative models of living—modes of living that have a long history in Black communities. Jamelle believes that these are the kinds of creative solutions we need to interrupt the status quo of the discriminatory system in place.

JB: One thing that would have been nice to see during the last recession is for localities to buy up vacant homes, like create basically just like a home bank that you can use public money to rehab them and they can become public units. They become deeply subsidized units. There are land trusts, right, where like a community owns the land collectively and then sort of gets financing collectively and can provide kind of reduced-cost housing to members of the community. 

Just down the street from me, actually, the Thomas Jefferson Area Land Trust has built a bunch of really nice homes for lower income residents. There are, you know—in the Black community, in Hispanic communities, Asian American communities—there is, I think, a stronger tradition of extended families living together. And there are many localities where this is sort of like not actually legal, right? It’s not legal for two unmarried people to buy a home and then have two households live under it. And making that legal, I think, would be a good thing. 

On a similar note, right, sort of like encouraging people to build units on their property for this purpose would be a good thing, right? So I think there are levers policymakers can use to basically, sort of, like, institutionalize these different ways of ownership and encourage, you know—let a thousand flowers bloom, right? Like, there are many different approaches here, and so far many places seem to be locked in this kind of like single family thing, but that is just not how people live. That’s not how people have traditionally lived. and that’s not how people live now, and we should move away from it.

KEW: We’re asking a number of our guests what they think and hope free Black futures look like. Do you have a vision and an idea of how we might get there?

JB: A free Black future—the vision I have in mind is the vision I kind of have in mind for, you know, the society in which I live—people can live secure lives, can fulfill themselves as individuals, as members of communities, can flourish and can thrive in however manner they want with the state playing a supporting role, but without the state sort of imposing on them hierarchies. Without, you know, private actors imposing on them hierarchies, right? Where people can live free of hierarchy. 

On one hand there’s nothing, like, specifically Black about that, but on the other hand I think that Black history can provide ways of thinking about what that might look like in practice. There’s traditions which, you know, the flourishing of yourself cannot be disconnected from the flourishing of your community. I think that these are traditions within African American life that have a good deal to contribute to broader American life and to broadly conceptualizing what sort of, like, a truly democratic America might look like.

KEW: Because you know, when Black people are free and where they’re able to enjoy this, that means everyone is able to enjoy it. I think is the sort of larger understanding about that, the larger sensibilities around that.

JB: Right. Which, I think people have a hard time understanding that idea. It seems intuitive to me, and I think it seems intuitive to you. What we’re talking about here is that the forms of domination that afflict Black people, if you could remove them, are in a way…each form of domination, in one way, stretches across the society. We’re sort of the locus for it, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t touch everyone else as well. And like stripping away those forms of domination pays dividends for everyone.

KEW: That was Jamelle Bouie. You can read his column and more of his writing in The New York Times.

Episode Resources

The following resources were utilized in the research and creation of this episode:

Seizing Freedom is a co-production of VPM and Molten Heart