On a quiet street in southeast Durham, an old, one-story home goes for about $220,000. Two miles away, in the Forest Hills neighborhood, a similar home was sold in 2019 for nearly triple that, $625,000. Today, it’s worth almost a million dollars.

There’s one big difference between these two neighborhoods. On Ridgeway Avenue, in the Plum Street area, about 83 percent of residents are Black. On Wilshire Drive, in Forest Hills, the majority of homeowners (78.5 percent) are white.

Just move a historic, four-bedroom home in southeast Durham a couple of miles west, to a white neighborhood, and all of a sudden it’s worth 96 percent more.

“If you look at our built environment, you can see a lot of disparity when it comes to access to quality housing, access to homeownership, access to locally based goods and services, access to reliable transportation,” says Thomas Barrie, professor of architecture at NC State University and director of the Affordable Housing and Sustainable Communities Initiative.

“When you start to look at that whole picture, you quickly recognize how policy leads to those inequalities. And policies are typically created by the powerful.”

The American Dream

The long-lasting gap in home value has had a profound effect on Black families. Often, the most valuable thing a family owns is its home. As a home’s value increases over the years, homeowners can use the money they save to send children to college, start a small business, or invest in other moneymaking opportunities.

Without a home, building wealth is much harder. Excess income goes to cover rent hikes or moving expenses. Over the years, it builds up, until we get to today, when the typical white family has almost 10 times the wealth of a typical Black family, according to the Brookings Institute.

Racism alone accounts for a $48,000 difference in home values, according to a 2018 study by Brookings researchers. Stripped of factors like crime rates, school quality, and building age, that’s how much an average home in a majority-Black neighborhood is undervalued compared to an identical home in an identical all-white neighborhood.

Statewide, only about 47 percent of Black families own their home, compared to 75 percent of white families, according to the NC Housing Finance Agency.

What is redlining?

The segregation and divide in home value and ownership that exists in Durham—and most other major cities—dates back to the 1930s. Following the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal gave millions of Americans the chance to buy a home, building wealth for generations to come. Those opportunities, however, mostly went to white families, as lenders denied loans and federal financial aid to Black Americans.

The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, established in 1933, rated neighborhoods by risk. Green neighborhoods were safe for mortgage lending, and people living there were able to get a loan backed by the federal government. Red neighborhoods, on the other hand, were deemed too risky for loans, and without federal support, banks wouldn’t lend to those living there.

Maps from the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation show these ratings boiled down to the racial makeup of a community. Even one Black family living in an area could make it a “declining” neighborhood, in the words of the administrators at the time. Descriptions of these areas are shocking to modern ears.

“This was formerly a good white residential street,” one administrator wrote about the Plum Street/St. Theresa neighborhoods. “But negroes are gradually taking up the area.”

A nearby elementary school, C.C. Spaulding, is the worst-performing in the county. Fast-food and convenience stores far outnumber grocery stores, increasing food insecurity. There are no homes within a quarter mile of a health clinic or pharmacy. Violent crimes per square mile are 20 times higher than the countywide rate.

What many don’t realize, though, is that the quality of the neighborhood isn’t a reflection on its residents, but on the racist practices dating back decades.

“It’s so, so important to understand history. The history of housing disparity and racist housing policies in this country, they’re pretty accessible,” says Barrie. “That’s important when we’re looking to the government … to shape policy, to do the greatest good for the greatest number.”

In the early 20th century, “redlining” and segregation created a historic lack of investment in Black areas. Later, Barrie says, private homeowners associations used “deed restrictions and covenants that prohibited whites from selling homes to Blacks.”

After the Fair Housing Act was passed in the 1960s, however, many officials began using exclusionary zoning laws in the same way, to marginalize Black communities. The Fair Housing Act was aimed at eliminating racist housing policies, Barrie says.

“But it did not reform zoning,” he adds. “Cities were basically able to do work-arounds, with either implicit or explicit intentions [to segregate]. So now instead of exclusionary laws, we have exclusionary zoning. In both cases, they limit the access of people to quality housing, as well as the other benefits of higher-wealth areas: schools, services, transportation.”

Zoning laws may no longer be explicitly racist, but many suburban homeowners can still be heard railing against proposed changes to their neighborhood. Hearings at city council meetings often become heated as people protest that building more affordable homes in historically single-family communities will “change the character” of their neighborhood.

These income-based exclusions often have the effect of excluding Black families from suburban neighborhoods, thanks to the nation’s checkered past.

“Smaller units on smaller lot sizes, which consequently will be more affordable, are effectively made illegal,” Barrie says. “So the social and economic mobility of our fellow citizens is then truncated.”

Geographic justice

Some cities are making progress in equalizing zoning laws, according to Barrie. Durham’s efforts to increase the availability of “missing middle” housing helps make homes affordable for all. The city council is setting aside 2¢ of the property tax rate each year for affordable housing initiatives. That, along with a $95 million bond, funds a five-year plan to increase affordable housing.

Durham City Council member Jillian Johnson says the funding is helping build new affordable housing, renovate and preserve existing housing, support the city’s homelessness system, and support homeownership opportunities, and that the Durham Housing Authority is a major partner to the city. The DHA is redeveloping its downtown public housing and adding affordable and market-rate housing.

“Unfortunately, people of color are disproportionately housing-cost burdened and more likely to face housing instability and homelessness than white residents,” Johnson says. “Lack of affordable housing is a core racial equity issue.”

Like in Durham, Raleigh’s recent zoning changes can also have a long-term impact—upzoning areas to allow town houses and apartment complexes to be built.

“It’s really land use reform,” Barrie says. “If you create a wide diversity of housing, the hope is that you’ll create a housing landscape that is ultimately more diverse too.” 

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Follow Staff Writer Jasmine Gallup on Twitter or send an email to jgallup@indyweek.com.