Friday, May 23, 2014

Housing Segregation in My Life

My father was a minister; both of my grandparents were ministers. We lived in parsonages.
But right between my first and second year of grade school, my father left the ministry (another story) and started working for Republic Steel. My family entered the housing market for the first time.

Not my actual house, but one of the same model.
My parents bought a house, a little Cape Cod, in Wickliffe, a working class subdivision in the suburb of Austintown, immediately the west of Youngstown, Ohio. I believe that it cost them about $12,000. It had two bedrooms, and 1 bath on the first floor. An eat-in kitchen and a Living Room.  The upstairs was unfinished; my dad built two more bedrooms upstairs and we converted the second bedroom downstairs into a den, because my mother thought a TV in the living room was an abomination.

It was a stretch to buy this house.  It was mortgaged to the full limit, I am sure, which probably meant that it was an FHA approved mortgage.

Ta Nehisi Coates, in his masterful argument for reparations, points out that the FHA redlined loans, refusing to guarantee loans for houses in some neighborhoods and not in others, often explicitly on the grounds of race. Loans in black neighborhoods would not be guaranteed.

My new neighborhood was all white.

It was not that there were not black people around who had reached the level of prosperity of my
Republic Steel originated the Steelmark Logo which
they gave to the Pittsburgh Steelers to use
family. It was a working class neighborhood; my father was now a steelworker. And I knew from his stories of life in the mill that there were African American men who had steady union jobs in the mills. So I have to conclude in retrospect that the machinery of segregation was at work: a conscious agreement among realtors, bankers and the FHA (the government) to keep this subdivision all white.

There were black kids in my elementary school. As far as I can remember, they all lived in a little collection of houses in a neighborhood off a road that headed out of Austintown to the northwest. I was there once; it was poor. The students from there were poor.

We drove through poor, black neighborhoods in Youngstown. There was one that was along a
shortcut that we took to the First Unitarian Church there, so we went through it often. We were aware of what we then called the "slums".  My parents told us that there were slums and ghettos and that there was housing segregation. But I didn't understand how it worked. I thought that housing segregation happened at the seller and realtor level. Prejudiced people wouldn't sell to black people. And because they couldn't buy, that made black people the easy prey of the other villains in the story: the "slumlords." And as for the run-down conditions of the slums, we're were sympathetic: after all, if you couldn't buy and were being victimized as a renter, then why not let the porch sag, and the paint peel, and the yard turn to mud?

In other words, as good late 50's and early 60's liberals, we saw the results of white racism, and we were sympathetic to its victims, and we identified some of the perpetrators (realtors and slumlords). But, I don't think anyone in family was conscious of the system that was at work; it was more individual than that. And I doubt that anyone connected my parent's ability to get a mortgage on a starter home with the conditions in that little poor black neighborhood nearby.

We lived in that starter home until I was a junior in high school. They sold it for a profit and used the money for another larger house out in a more rural area. Long after I left home, they sold that house for a profit and bought a home in Arizona. But, both my parents died before they were 70. Anything they accumulated in terms of wealth, they had spent in health care costs at the end. But along the way, they had been free to live as well as their incomes and wealth would allow.  A happy circumstance that was not available to all. It was a privilege.

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