One House at a Time, Rebuilding the American Dream in Washington

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One house at a time, rebuilding the American dream in Washington

In the shadow of the White House, segregation , practiced for a long time in real estate, has left lasting traces. But a movement is gaining momentum to close the persistent gap in home ownership between blacks and whites.

The rows of Victorian houses lined with tall trees that distinguish the historic heart of the American capital are the facet colored by a dark history: that of racial segregation.

WASHINGTON – October evening. Candidates for Washington's City Council — whose campaign runs concurrently with the midterm race — gather for a housing debate at Busboy and Poets, a bookstore in Mount Vernon Square, a neighborhood central and effervescent.

In this city where residents pay on average 60% more than elsewhere in the country to live there, the subject is imperative.

The American capital is the fifteenth city in the country where the separation between the white and black populations is still visible on the territory. If the most affluent neighborhoods in the west are mainly home to whites, African-American households, a minority, are grouped together in the east, in often more disadvantaged areas.

But it has not always been exactly so. Until the 1970s, the black population was the majority in the city nicknamed Chocolate City, a name popularized by the funk group Parliament. Several central neighborhoods were home to a vibrant African-American culture, while being at the forefront of civil rights movements, as the American magazine Politico recalls.

Due to gentrification, the city's black population has declined over the past fifty years, from 71% in 1971 to 48% in 2015.

A debate on housing in the context of the municipal elections in Washington took place on October 20 at the Busboy and Poets.

Washington is also one of a handful of U.S. cities where economic growth has resulted in the exodus of its disadvantaged population, according to a University of Minnesota study published in 2019.

Meanwhile, the wealth gap between blacks and whites has widened. In 2019, in Washington, the average income of a white household was $154,000, and $48,000 for an African-American household.

Enough to make access home ownership an almost impossible dream for a large part of the population.

This is a black city, but everything has been orchestrated to drive the working class and poor people out of the district, denounces the Reverend Graylan Hagler, who moderates the electoral debate at Busboy and Poets.

Reverend Graylan Hagler co-chaired a recent commission on homeownership for black people in Washington.

The 68-year-old, who some describe as the city's moral conscience, co-chaired a recent commission on homeownership for black people in Washington, the recommendations of which were made public in October. /p>

The report's findings are alarming: in 2020, only 34% of the city's black population were homeowners, compared to 49% of white households. A decrease of more than 10 points in 10 years.

Following the tabling of the recommendations, the city pledged to increase the number of African American homeowners in Washington by 20,000 by 2030. affordable units.

It's achievable, even doable, but it's going to take a lot of effort and partnerships, says Vanessa Perry, professor of marketing at the School of Management of George Washington University. The one who is also a member of the Urban Institute research centeranalyzed the economic feasibility of the recommendations.

For Reverend Hagler, nothing is certain.

“I'm a bit cynical, in the sense that I think politicians won't make it possible if we – the community – don't fight for it.

— Reverend Graylan Hagler

After all, this is about reversing a long-standing trend.

The autumn sun caresses the red brick facade of this building on Bryant Street in the historic district of Bloomingdale's in the center of the city.

It was in this residence that the legal battle was played out so that black families could buy properties where they wanted, which gave rise to the Hurd v. . Hodge of the Supreme Court, in 1948.

Historian Mara Cherkasky of the Mapping Segregation DC Project in front of one of the houses where the legal battle to end deeds excluding black people in the United States.

In 2014, when historian Mara Cherkasky, 72, began a project to map segregation in Washington, she never expected the initiative to be so far-reaching. We didn't even think anyone would be interested, she recalls. Yet the 2020 resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement has dramatically changed the game.

“After the death of George Floyd, visits on our website have doubled in one month. It was striking!

—Mara Cherkasky, historian at the Mapping Segregation DC Project

Over seven years, she and her team analyzed thousands of deeds from city records where restrictions prevented the sale of property to non-white families. We found them all over town, she says, even in places we wouldn't have imagined.

The goal? Prevent African-American families from settling in upscale areas, such as Takoma, Parkview or Wesley Heights.

The result? Washington's vast black population was forced into older and often overcrowded neighborhoods, says the historian.

Dozens of black families have been prosecuted under restricted deeds. And they lost their case, one after the other, describes Ms. Charkasky, pointing to the buildings where these tragedies took place.

The majority of lawsuits under the restrictive deeds uncovered by Mapping Segregation DC have taken place in the Bloomingdale neighborhood alone.

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The Bloomingdale's neighborhood has been front and center to end deeds restricting the sale of property to black people in the United States.

These discriminatory practices continued from the end of the 19th century until their official abolition in 1968 – almost 100 years later – by the Fair Housing Act.

“But even after that, real estate agents and banks made sure the houses wouldn't be owned by black people. It was a whole system.

—Mara Cherkasky, historian at the Mapping Segregation DC Project

A system whose effects on home ownership for the black population have endured, spanning generations.

Black families have, over several generations, lost the possibility of accumulating of the wealth they could have had if it hadn't been for the policies that prevented them from owning property, argues Professor Vanessa Perry.

“Owning property brings critical gains and all kinds of social and economic benefits that are, frankly, the key to the famous American dream. »

— Vanessa Perry, Professor of Marketing at George Washington University School of Management

Vanessa Perry, professor of marketing at George Washington University School of Management.

In 2021, black residents of Washington were still twice as likely to be turned away a mortgage compared to the average for applicants in the territory, according to data compiled in the report of the Commission on Homeownership for Black People in Washington.

But the collective awareness of racism in the United States, linked to the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, seems to be making things happen, according to Vanessa Perry.

The Black Lives Matter movement sheds new light on disparities in homeownership for black people in the US capital.

In 2020, the National Association of Realtors issued an apology for its racist practices and ongoing discrimination in housing for the first time, while promising to change things.

And last week, the Washington Attorney General won a historic $10 million settlement for cases of discrimination against low-income tenants, the largest in US history.< /p>

Yes, I think there is a favorable situation at the moment, enthuses Vanessa Perry. There is a lot of interest and effort to really close the gap in homeownership. And that's going to have huge payoffs for anyone who right now can't create wealth and pass it on to the next generation.

Report produced as part of an internship at the Radio-Canada office in Washington, thanks to a grant from the Fondation de l'Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM).

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