Fixing racial housing gap will take local initiative, author tells Realtors

Hundreds of lawsuits kept Los Angeles neighborhoods segregated in the 1930s and 40s. Federal loans required neighborhoods built in Panorama City, Westchester and Lakewood to be for Whites only. Air raid wardens helped enforce rules to keep Culver City an all-White enclave.

Efforts like these to segregate America are documented in Richard Rothstein’s best-selling book, “The Color of Law.”

Now Rothstein is working on a new book describing actions needed to end the nation’s decades-old legacy of housing segregation. In a chat before a crowd of Realtors, Rothstein said local action will be more effective than federal legislation.

“There is no political will to do federal policy that’s going to be significant,” Rothstein said last weekend at the National Association of Realtors conference in Orlando, Fla. “I’d say local (action is needed). Let’s focus on the things we can do.”

Rothstein, a journalist and fellow at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., argues in his 2017 book that housing segregation didn’t happen by chance or by accident.

Subtitled “A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America,” the book refutes the fiction that divided neighborhoods in places like the Bay Area or Southern California occurred as a result of “de facto” segregation.

Segregation, he argues, is the result of “de juris” segregation, meaning they’re caused by federal, state and local government action.

During the first three-quarters of the 20th century, government-sanctioned policies  — like redlining, Whites-only deed restrictions, exclusionary zoning, bulldozing Black neighborhoods for highway construction and legal protection for stone- and bomb-throwing mobs driving Black families out of White neighborhoods — created housing segregation.

Southern California was no exception.

Among the examples in Rothstein’s book:

— From 1937 to 1948, more than a hundred lawsuits sought to evict African American residents from neighborhoods with Whites-only deed covenants. In 1947, a man was jailed for refusing to move out of a home he bought in violation of one such covenant.

— In 1943, the all-White community of Culver City recruited World War II air raid wardens to circulate documents seeking commitments not to sell or rent homes to African Americans.

— From 1949 to 1953, the Federal Housing Administration financed Whites-only housing projects in Lakewood, Westchester and Panorama City.

— In 1954, Los Angeles routed the Santa Monica Freeway through Sugar Hill,  the city’s most prosperous African American middle-class community, culminating an unsuccessful 16-year effort to keep Blacks from moving there.

“The most common reaction I got was how come I didn’t know about this? Why wasn’t I told about this in high school?” Rothstein said. “The second question is what can we do about that? … I finally decided I have to write about what we can do.”

His next book, “Just Action,” is due out in June.

“We do have a fair housing law, and so it’s easy for people to think that the problem is over,” Rothstein said. “This new book goes through policy after policy, action after action that people can take.”

Those actions include:

— Advocating for an end to discriminatory tax assessments. Because of a failure to regularly reassess property values, property taxes have a greater impact on lower-income neighborhoods, where values rise more slowly than wealthier ones. As a result, he said, “African American homeowners and African American neighborhoods pay higher tax rates relative to the market value of their home.”

— Pressuring local housing authorities to increase Section 8 rent subsidies, so tenants can live somewhere other than low-income, segregated housing.

— Supporting the creation of land trusts like those in Orange County and San Jose to produce low-cost affordable housing.

— Providing free lawyers to any tenant who gets an eviction notice, since renters often aren’t represented by legal counsel.

Rothstein told the Realtor conference “The Color of Law” began as a response to a 2007 opinion by Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. School diversity programs in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., were illegal, Roberts argued, since the government didn’t cause segregation.

“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” Roberts ruled.

But Rothstein recalled a Louisville case in which an angry White mob protected by the police surrounded a Black family’s home in a White neighborhood, threw rocks through the windows and dynamited the home. The White homeowner who sold the property to that Black family was prosecuted for sedition.

“The police, the courts, the entire criminal justice system are agents of state government,” he said. “I began to look into it further. I found that many, many federal, state and local policies, racially explicit policies, created the racial landscape that we have today.”