Guest commentary: Overcoming the legacy of redlining in Richmond

Guest commentary: Overcoming the legacy of redlining in Richmond
Photo contributed.

By Greg Brock

April is Fair Housing Month, a time to reflect on the strides we’ve made towards ensuring equal access to housing opportunities for all individuals. As we celebrate progress in fair and inclusive housing practices, it’s important to acknowledge that there is still work to be done to overcome the legacy of redlining in Richmond.

Redlining, a discriminatory practice that denied financial services to people based on their race or ethnicity, had a profound impact on the city’s African American and Latino populations and the overall economic development of the city. In this article, we’ll look at the history of redlining in Richmond and its ongoing effects on the city’s real estate market.

Redlining resulted in a scarcity of housing opportunities for people living in certain areas based on their race or ethnicity. This practice was common in many areas of the United States, including our own city of Richmond.

The term “redlining” arose in the 1930s, when the federal government established the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) to help refinance homes during the Great Depression. As part of this program, the HOLC created maps of American cities that graded neighborhoods based on their perceived “risk” for lenders. Areas deemed “high-risk” were typically located in neighborhoods with high populations of people of color. These neighborhoods were given a grade of “D” on the HOLC maps and were colored red, hence the term “redlining.” Lenders were then encouraged to avoid these areas, making it difficult for people living there to obtain loans and other financial services.

While Richmond was not specifically graded as “high-risk” on the HOLC maps, the people of color living in the city still faced significant housing discrimination in the 1940s and 1950s. Although the term “redlining” technically refers to the practice of denying financial services to specific neighborhoods based on perceived risk, it has become a shorthand for the broader systemic discrimination faced by people of color in the housing market. Richmond, like many other cities across the country, has a complicated history of exclusionary policies that have had lasting effects on the community.

“…It is crucial for us to understand how the economic marginalization of people of color in the past harmed society as a whole…”

During the rapid population growth, the federal government provided public housing
that was explicitly segregated. The housing for African Americans in Richmond was
poorly constructed and temporary, located near the shipbuilding area and railroad

In contrast, government housing for white defense workers was built farther inland,
closer to white residential areas, and some of it was sturdily constructed and permanent. This segregation of public housing established living patterns that persist in
Richmond to this day.

A typical African American experience was that of Frank Stevenson. He moved to Richmond from Louisiana as a youth during World War II. Although Richmond’s black population soared from 270 to 14,000 during the war, Stevenson was unable to find a place in the public housing projects available for non-white workers. Lacking options, he settled in North Richmond, an unincorporated area then with no city services. It wasn’t until the 1970s after the “white flight” from Richmond that Frank Stevenson was finally able
to buy a home in a section of the city which had previously been barred to people of color.

While redlining in Richmond primarily targeted neighborhoods with high populations of people of color, it had negative impacts on all residents. Redlining policies often limited investment in entire neighborhoods, leading to declining property values and reduced access to essential services such as grocery stores, schools, and public transportation. This, in turn, led to a decline in overall quality of life for residents, regardless of their race or
ethnicity. Additionally, redlining policies reinforced discriminatory attitudes and practices, perpetuating systemic inequality and division within communities. In effect, redlining was bad for everyone.

Redlining was eventually stopped due to legal action and advocacy efforts by civil rights groups. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited discrimination in housing based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or disability. This act was a major step forward in combating the discriminatory practices of redlining and in promoting equal housing opportunities for all.

The local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has been actively involved in fighting against redlining in Richmond. The organization has raised awareness about modern-day redlining and its impact on the community, calling for increased government oversight of lending practices and
greater investment in historically underserved neighborhoods.

For instance, in 2018, the Richmond NAACP partnered with the National Fair Housing Alliance to conduct a study of lending practices in the city. The study found that African American and Latino borrowers were more likely to be denied conventional mortgage loans, and they were more likely to be offered high-cost loans, even when their credit profiles were comparable to those of white borrowers.

Following the study, the Richmond NAACP advocated for policy changes to address the issue, including stronger enforcement of fair lending laws and greater transparency in the lending process. Their efforts helped to prompt a review of lending practices by the
city council and led to the adoption of new policies aimed at promoting fair and equitable access to credit and housing.

The work of organizations like the Richmond NAACP in promoting fair and inclusive housing practices is vital to assure access of all members of our community to the housing market. Advocating for policy changes that address the legacy of redlining and promoting diversity and inclusivity in the real estate industry is helping to build a more just and equitable real estate market for everyone.

Lenders seem to be getting the message. Jay Voorhees from JVM Lending says his company is addressing the issue: “We understand that there have been unfortunate findings regarding discrimination against people of color in the mortgage lending world, but it’s important to note that those studies looked at a wide range of lenders. At JVM Lending, we’re committed to making sure our practices are fair and equitable for everyone, especially for people of color.”

As residents of Richmond, it is crucial for us to understand how the economic marginalization of people of color in the past harmed society as a whole so that we can work together toward a common goal of equal access to housing opportunities for all individuals in our richly diverse community.

Gregory P. Brock is a real estate agent for Coldwell Banker Realty, with offices at 1495 Shattuck Ave. in Berkeley, O. (510) 486-1495, and 6137 La Salle Ave. in Oakland, O. (510) 339-4700. You can also reach him at [email protected].