Editor’s Note: Lamell McMorris is the founding principal of Greenlining Realty USA, a real estate redevelopment firm aimed at redressing the effects of redlining. McMorris is a lifelong advocate of civil, economic and social rights, currently serving on the national boards of the National Action Network, the National Urban League and the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. He previously served on the national board of the NAACP and as the Executive Director and COO of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He is founder and CEO of the Washington, DC-based strategic advisory firm Phase 2 Consulting. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Anniversaries afford us important opportunities to reflect, but this year we approach the 57th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom having already had more than enough time and cause for reflection. At a moment when the fatal inadequacies of our public health and public safety systems are finally, powerfully and painfully clear not just to Black Americans, it’s hard to imagine that anyone needs to be reminded of what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called, the “fierce urgency of now.” And yet, this urgency is still being met with reactionary or performative change, as opposed to systemic reckoning.
To keep the demand for meaningful change at the forefront of the national discussion on racism, the National Action Network has planned the “Commitment March: Get your knee off our necks.” During this very traumatic and historic year, Black America deserves and needs our commitment. All of us – the public, private and non-profit sectors, civil society writ large – we all have a role to play in righting the systemic wrongs that have brought us to this low point in our nation’s history.
But as we make this commitment and take on this lofty work, we must not forget that so much of it begins in our own backyard. There can be no adequate conversation about the dual pandemics of Covid-19 and police brutality without talking about housing in America, and there can be no lasting progress for our nation’s public health and public safety without confronting the legacy of redlining. The good news is that by understanding how we got here, we’re able to clearly see what needs to be done: to redress the historic effects of redlining, we need “greenlining.”
Greenlining refers to the process of investing in historically redlined neighborhoods.
It is at this point well understood that homeownership is the gateway to the American middle class, and with it, the professed American Dream. Owning a home is one of the only ways that average Americans are able to build wealth and equity for themselves and their descendants. Amid the economic turmoil of the 1930s, The Federal Housing Administration was created in order to help make that dream more accessible to struggling White Americans, specifically by insuring private mortgages. If a family could get an FHA-backed mortgage, they’d be asked for a lot less upfront and charged significantly less in interest. To determine which mortgages they would insure, the FHA created a system of maps, rating the level of perceived financial risk in different neighborhoods. Historically Black neighborhoods were always designated high risk. What is today Woodlawn, Chicago – my hometown neighborhood – was designated as high risk and marked on a map in red. In other words, redlined.
Once a neighborhood was redlined, it became nearly impossible for its residents to secure mortgages or loans of any kind. By denying Black families the means for homeownership, redlining denied Black families the ability to build wealth and created all-White communities that were ignorant to the social and economic disparities that Black people were – and still are – experiencing.
If you care about racial equality, the homeownership gap and segregation of our neighborhoods should greatly disturb you. Though redlining was banned in name with the passing of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, the racial homeownership gap is today wider than it was in the 1940s when it was 22.8%. In the first quarter of 2020, 73.7% of White households owned their homes, compared to 44% of Black households – a gap of 29.7%. The median net worth of Black households in 2016 was just $17,150, compared to $171,000 for White households.
Between 2007 and 2013, following the collapse of the housing market, the median net worth of Black families fell on average 44.3%, versus 26% for White families. Black families were twice as likely to be foreclosed upon during this time. We can expect racial disparities to show themselves in the rates of evictions and foreclosures we’re soon to see because of the pandemic. And still today, according to an analysis from Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, the ZIP code of your residence often determines your ability to secure home equity loans, without which you might not be able to make necessary repairs, causing property values to decrease and neighborhoods to deteriorate.
From the racial wealth and homeownership gaps, and from the systemic disinvestment in historically Black communities, a whole host of further inequalities ensue in access to quality education, in access to adequate health care and nutrition, and in the likelihood of incarceration or death at the hands of the police. What should be patently evident, then, is that there is an opportunity to make tremendous progress in improving the most urgent and fatal matters of public health and public safety by addressing the historic effects of redlining. And we can do that by giving Black communities the investment they have always been worthy of.
Today, Black homeowners are nearly five times more likely to own homes in previously redlined neighborhoods than White families, according to a study by real estate brokerage Redfin.
Fifty-seven years ago, Dr. King walked out on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and declared that we can’t be satisfied “as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” That “we cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.” In late July, the Trump Administration rolled back regulations under the Fair Housing Act, gutting much of its enforcing aspects, in a bid to prevent “low-income housing” from encroaching on those living their “Suburban Lifestyle Dream.” It would be “fatal,” Dr. King said, “for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment.” This remains the case.
As a civil rights activist, I’m familiar with the pain of having to continuously explain that replacing racist policy with neutral policy is inadequate and unjust. As a Black entrepreneur, it has always been clear to me that rising tides do not lift all boats. I founded Greenlining Realty USA with the mission to work in partnership with historically Black communities to secure the investment needed to rebuild their neighborhoods and make significant gains in their quality of life. It has been my life’s work to help guide business leaders on how and where they should direct their resources to make meaningful change. And as we approach this very historic anniversary, in these deeply uncertain times, we must not overlook the urgency of the moment and the profound opportunity we have to create lasting change. I renew my commitment to a lifetime of working to ensure that Black neighborhoods and their residents have what they need to thrive. It’s incumbent upon our nation’s leaders – in both the public and private sectors – to do the same.