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Mapping Projects Show Lasting Impact Of Redlining, Racial Covenants In Virginia

Deed archive

In May 2016, Chris Fullman woke up anxious. It was closing day for his new home in Richmond’s Lakeside, a 1951 brick rancher. He says he was looking forward to getting the keys and being able to unlock the door for the first time. 

But after signing all those dotted lines, the closing attorney said “there’s one last thing” and handed over a copy of the covenants, warning Fullman and his husband that what they would see was offensive -- though not enforceable.

“And literally the second item on the list was basically, if you’re not white, you can’t live, rent or do anything on this land unless you work for the property owner,” said Fullman.

Fullman says this put a pit in his stomach. The Lakeside neighborhood he was moving to was diverse. And 50 years after the 1968 Fair Housing Act made these practices illegal, why was this covenant still attached to his deed? 

“I’m thinking of all the black families and non-white families that live in the neighborhood now that got the same document saying at a time you weren’t welcome, you are welcome now, but here’s this document saying you’re not welcome if it’s 1951,” said Fullman.

A document Fullman calls a “paper monument.” Across the country, subdivision developers and homeowners associations used restrictive covenants to deny black people and other targeted populations like Asian Americans and Jewish Americans, the right to buy and even rent property. These covenants were legally enforceable for decades, even after properties changed hands. 

Government programs also created the segregation, disinvestment and a wealth gap that still exists today. You can explore some of these policies in  Mapping Inequality, a project of the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab, Virginia Tech, the University of Maryland and Johns Hopkins University. 

The project lets the public see how a 1930s New Deal-era federal program, the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC), graded neighborhoods in nearly 250 cities largely based on the race of residents. The worst grade was a D or what they labeled “hazardous.” And if you lived here, you’d be denied financial assistance or refinancing. 

“These were made just to save the bank's right to keep them from going under and kind of pump some more money into the economy and to save people from foreclosing on their homes, mostly in wealthy white neighborhoods,” said Justin Madron, a GIS analyst at the University of Richmond.

Richmond’s map shows large parts of the East End and Southside labeled yellow for “definitely declining” and red for “hazardous.” Green or “best” areas often got that grade for their restrictive covenants. 

“This is a highly favorable influence for these neighborhoods and why they were given an A rating is because of these restrictions that were going on, [in Richmond at] Windsor farms and all of those A neighborhoods out west,” said Madron.

The federal government hired white lenders and appraisers to grade the neighborhoods. Most surveys for Richmond didn’t list their names, but a few did. A Mr. Arnold, who worked for the still-operating firm Pollard & Bagby, gave a Byrd Park neighborhood a “C” or “definitely declining” grade. His reasons included that black residents walked through the subdivision on the way to the park and because the segregated school for white children was located in the adjacent black neighborhood.

“We see a very strong connection between areas that were rated hazardous from the Home Owners Loan Corporation and areas that were deemed for urban renewal money. So a lot of these places because of disinvestment fell into disrepair and were turn blighted by urban renewal received a lot of federal money,” Madron explained. “And then these became our coliseums, our shopping centers, the big, concrete urban structures that we see today. So it has this very linear path through history that's still being seen today.”

Braxton Pollard, president of Pollard & Bagby, said in an email to WCVE that he isn’t familiar with the 1930s history of the firm, and he denounced the discriminatory practices of the past.

“It is hard for me to fathom that in the 1930s, the federal government initiated a program like the HOLC that resulted in discriminatory lending and insurance practices. We are fortunate that new generations of community leaders and legislators have enacted laws to make this type of practice illegal,” wrote Bagby.

How do these policies play into today’s economic disparities? The median household wealth for white families is about $171,000, while that number drops to just $17,000 for black families, according to  data analyzed by the Economic Policy Institute. The homeownership rate for blacks is about 41%, nearly the same as it was in 1968, while for whites it grew from 66% to 71%. 

The publication of the HOLC maps by Mapping Inequality has led to research examining how these policies play out today. A working paper from the  Federal Reserve finds the maps contributed to rising segregation, reduced credit access and disinvestment. The real estate company  Zillow used the data to examine property values, finding homes in Richmond neighborhoods graded “best” are now worth a median value of about $490,000 compared to $297,000 for neighborhoods designated as “hazardous.”

Researchers are also using the Mapping Inequality data to examine other disparities. Brian Koziol from Housing Opportunities Made Equal overlaid contemporary police pedestrian stops on the HOLC map of Richmond, showing the majority of stops are in areas graded C and D. Jonathan Knopf with HD Advisors and the Maggie Walker Community Land Trust found that  more than half of tax delinquent properties are in C and D neighborhoods. The Science Museum of Virginia’s Jeremy Hoffman compared the  HOLC maps to today’s urban heat islands, finding those same downgraded neighborhoods have higher temperatures during summer heat waves affecting the health and wellness of residents.

Other efforts are documenting racial covenants in Virginia. In Charlottesville, journalist and WCVE contributor Jordy Yager is creating a massive database called  The Mapping Inequities project. A Digital Humanities Fellow at the  Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, Yager is partnering with the school district, UVA, city clerks and planners to digitally scan and search thousands of property records.

“The project idea came from seeing how one's locality, where one lives, the immediate proximity of their home and the surrounding neighborhood is the number one predictor of what's going to happen to that individual in life in the future,” said Yager.

The project will include a searchable map that tracks where racial covenants were located. From there, Yager says they’ll add layers examining health inequities, educational disparities, food access, employment and interactions with law enforcement. They’re also looking at where the city funded basic infrastructure, like water, electricity and street paving and how this impacted property values in black and white neighborhoods. All this data will be integrated into a searchable map, an interactive exhibit and school curriculum.

“It was such a huge part of how life was conducted and shaping all of the different facets of life and yet we haven't studied it in any comprehensive way,” said Yager. “And in fact, it's been deliberately swept under the rug and kind of buried. It's right in front of our faces, but yet it's not talked about, it's not acknowledged.” 

An important part of the project, says Yager, is sharing the  stories of how African Americans responded to these laws and practices.

“They're not sitting down and just taking it docilely, they're actively organizing and combining efforts so that they can buy properties throughout all of Charlottesville where they're not prevented from buying them and then turn those into very nice houses and in some instances a real estate market,” he said.

Like John West, who was born into slavery but by the time he’s in his fifties Yager says he owns about a hundred properties accross the Charlottesville area, including half of Afton Mountain, a couple hundred acres in Barboursville, and shops on Main Street, including the one next to the Paramount theater. 

“Now, of course, he's selling properties to other black individuals: to carpenters, tailors, to doctors, and so telling that story is a part of John West’s story,” said Yager.

In Richmond, a group of residents is also documenting racial covenants. Years after getting that pit in his stomach, Chris Fullman starting going to the Henrico courthouse determined to find out what other neighborhoods had these racist covenants. 

The research can be complicated because you often need to trace deeds back decades to find the records containing the racial covenants. And, each municipality has its own system for archiving deeds, and many remain undigitized. But with a tip from some title examiners, Fullman finds a shortcut. It still takes a few hours but he identifies dozens of subdivisions with racially restrictive covenants including Montrose Heights, Woodland Hills, Wilton Place, Westwood, Pleasant View, Robinwood, Monument Avenue Crest, Floral Gardens and more. 

Fullman was doing this research as a part of a group project for Leadership Metro Richmond, a leadership development initiative. Months of work by the team including those working in government, law, banking, advertising, nonprofits, social justice and other fields, has led to an initiative called  Make Better Deeds. Part of it will be a website, expected to launch this fall, to present their research, share narratives about racial covenants, and invite the public to continue documenting the extent of these practices in metro Richmond. 

“When I started this process it went from, ‘Huh, that's unfortunate and disappointing and sad. I don't know if I can do anything about it.’ To  two, three years later, ‘I think I can do something about it,’ to hopefully next year ‘I think we did something about it,’” Fullman said. 

Another goal for the Make Better Deeds project is convincing lawmakers to submit legislation for the 2020 General Assembly that would create a process for homeowners to remove racial covenants from deeds. 

Researchers in a number of cities are seeing impact from their projects mapping racial covenants.  Segregated Seattle, at the University of Washington, prompted new state laws making it easier for HOAs and property owners to remove these provisions. In Minneapolis,  Mapping Prejudice at the University of Minnesota partnered with Hennepin County, which gave the project access to more than a million digitized records. Their work led to a new law, which goes into effect August 1, that also allows homeowners to add a statement to their deeds renouncing the racist covenants. Planners also used the Mapping Prejudice research in developing the city’s  2040 Master Plan, which resulted in a big change -- ending single family zoning in the city. 

“I think that our research -- and community engagement -- was important in helping residents understand the need for reforms in land use regulations,” said Project Director Kirsten Delegard. “I would never say that density will solve racialized disparities in housing, but zoning regulations have been shaped by racist housing policies.”

Exclusionary zoning, like requiring single-family homes, minimum lot sizes and square footage and low density, became a method to continue segregating neighborhoods in the decades after the 1968 Fair Housing Act. More governments are looking at zoning as a way to address persistent segregation and develop more housing options. Oregon recently became the first state to  end single-family zoning in most places, permitting duplexes and fourplexes based on city population. Planners in Charlotte, NC  are evaluating a similar change. 

Zoning laws, says Richard Rothstein, are some of the most serious impediments to undoing residential segregation. Rothstein is the author of  The Color of Law which documents the discriminatory federal, state and local policies that continue to shape our cities. 

“So long as we think of racial segregation as having happened by accident, it’s very hard to imagine how it can be undone,” Rothstein told WCVE in 2018. “Once we realized it was the explicit creation of government policy, it becomes much easier to begin to envision the kinds of policies that can reverse it.”

For decades, many cities and urban planners ignored the lasting impacts of these practices. City of Richmond Director of Planning and Development Review Mark Olinger says he’s been in the business for 35 years and until recently nobody ever really talked about it.

“There were patterns of discrimination which led people to live in certain places which caused certain other things to happen like not good access to services,” said Olinger. “And I think there's a sensitivity that we don't want to revisit that and perpetuate that again.”

When the city launched Richmond 300, the master planning process, last year, an  Insights Report asked the public to consider the inequities caused by redlining, racial covenants and exclusionary zoning. 

Over the last five months, the master plan housing working group has been developing strategies that might address segregation and lack of quality, affordable housing that continues in Richmond. Access to transit and jobs is another key element to addressing equity in the master plan. 

Draft strategies for housing include investing in programs to prevent involuntary displacement; lobbying the General Assembly to permit “ inclusionary zoning,” where developers could be required to build a certain percentage of affordable units; changing zoning ordinances to allow two-family and accessory dwellings in all residential zones; and encouraging the development of “middle housing,” or buildings that have 4-16 units, throughout the city.

Olinger expects there to be pushback from neighborhoods with single-family zoning. He said he started to hear from residents in Richmond opposed to any changes after Minneapolis’s City Council passed their master plan last December. 

“It's the scale of the new project that I think often scares folks, that's what I hear,” said Olinger. “If you go down Monument, there's lots of multifamily but it respects the character of the single-family neighborhood. Why can't we use that as a model in other places in the city so that there's better integration of multifamily to single family as opposed to feeling like there's something imposed upon you that is very alien to what you're used to.”

The  largest land use in Richmond is single-family zoning, amounting to about 33% or 13,000 acres. Multifamily zoning compromises about 6% of total land use, about 2,500 acres. 

Some of these strategies to work toward inclusive and equitable housing, land use and transportation will be presented to city planning staff Monday July 29 at 4 p.m. at the Main Library. Next, will be a series of Master Plan  meetings in September and October where the community has another opportunity to weigh in on Richmond’s future. 

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