Community advocates make the case for equitable housing in the spirit of Dr. King - Generocity Philly

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Jan. 19, 2021 12:00 pm

Community advocates make the case for equitable housing in the spirit of Dr. King

In observation of MLK Day of Service, Habitat for Humanity Philadelphia hosted a virtual conversation between Corinne O'Connell and James Crowder on the ongoing fair housing crisis —part of the org’s series, "Race, Housing, and Health in Philadelphia."

Left: Corinne O'Connell; right: James Crowder.

(Screencaptures by Brandon Dorfman)

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King moved into a redlined district in Chicago’s West Side in 1966, the Civil Rights movement’s First Couple brought national attention to a housing crisis suppressing the rights of Black communities across the country.

According to Mrs. King at the time, the couple’s presence in the North Lawndale neighborhood, an area rife with discriminatory lending practices, would force the media to pay attention. Millions of African Americans who left the Jim Crow South for urban centers in the Northeast, Midwest and other areas amid The Great Migration found themselves facing a similar lack of opportunity due to both subtle and overt racism.

The Kings stood steadfast in their efforts in the face of scorn and hostility from white America. During what’s now known as the historic march for fair housing through Chicago’s Marquette Park, subversive influencers pelted demonstrators with rocks, bottles, and cherry bombs. Dr. King himself took a hit from a brick.

Only two years later, a wave of social unrest that followed Dr. King’s death emptied the commercial corridors surrounding North Lawndale and other majority-Black neighborhoods across the country while accelerating white flight to the suburbs.

But the 1968 riots, which reverberated from Los Angeles to New York, including throughout North Philadelphia, only tell part of the story.

“Insurance companies that were giving policies to store owners on these commercial corridors after the unrest, they refused to issue policies and so stores couldn’t reopen if they wanted to,” said James Crowder, a senior associate at the research and action institute known as PolicyLink. Founded in 1999 in Oakland, California, the organization focuses on racial equity and economic inclusion.

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“Commercial corridors sit vacant for years, property values continue to plummet, people that can move, those of means that can move, continue to move out, and the neighborhood continues to decline,” he continued.

In observation of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service, the local chapter of Habitat for Humanity hosted a virtual conversation on the ongoing fair housing crisis, a part of the organization’s ongoing series on race and housing in America titled Race, Housing, and Health in Philadelphia. The presentation, held in lieu of Habitat’s typical volunteer day of service due to COVID-19 restrictions, featured CEO Corinne O’Connell and Crowder, who spoke in detail about his recently released report The Case for Housing Justice in Philadelphia.

“I was drawn to a similar desire to ground myself in Dr. King’s work for today,” said Crowder, who spoke exclusively with Generocity following the afternoon’s presentation. Crowder centered his ideas around Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign, recalling how the Civil Rights icon was in Memphis fighting for economic justice with sanitation workers on the eve of his assassination.

“I think [Dr. King] would be pleased at some of the progress that we’ve made but also acknowledge how far we still have to go,” Crowder continued.

With that basic foundation underpinning the day’s presentation, Crowder and O’Connell took participants through a history of Philadelphia’s fair housing crisis and the racial injustices that continue to create chaos in the system through to today. The pair began with General Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15 after the Civil War, the now-infamous “40 Acres and a Mule” rescinded by President Andrew Johnson following Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and worked their way through the under-resourced Freedmen’s Bureau during Reconstruction.

Crowder explained that at one point in history, following The Great Migration, Philadelphia had the largest population of Black people outside of the South, with about 250,000 African Americans living in North Philadelphia. Even Society Hill was, at one time, a much more diverse neighborhood.

“Once folks got to Philadelphia, they’re met with, in certain parts of the city like South Philadelphia, met with violence and intimidation and folks not wanting to have Black neighbors,” explained Crowder.

But as both presenters noted, official federal policy tipped the racial divide into a full-out housing crisis.

The War on Drugs played its part, as did redlining in Philadelphia. It was the New Deal that created real intergenerational wealth, Crowder said, through the creation of the 30-year mortgage. But out of $120 billion in FHA loans, only 2 percent went to Black people.

According to Crowder, what’s often misconstrued, purposefully or not, as a moral failing by those who believe in bootstrap economics is, in reality, the result of failed federal policy.

“That’s kind of the narrative that folks on the other side of the aisle have tried to push,” he said. “It’s about ‘oh if people would just pull themselves up by their bootstraps or just budget more’ but without acknowledging the centuries of federal policies and how our tax dollars were also used to subsidize white flight out of these neighborhoods.”

In recent years, the federal policies that subsidized white flight out of communities of color have given way to land developers pushing up the cost of living as the demand for housing in neighborhoods like Temple University, and Graduate Hospital increases. And while both Crowder and O’Connell agree that gentrification isn’t a negative in and of itself, when it begins to displace families, forcing them further outside of the city, it becomes a problem.

As O’Connell stated, quoting from Crowder’s report, 20 years ago the value of a home in the Temple University area was around $11,000. Today, those same houses are now worth $150,000, making them, with taxes and upkeep, unaffordable for the average neighborhood family.

“If you have a landline in Sharswood they can get up to 10, 15 calls a week from a developer calling to say here’s cash for your home,” said O’Connell. She explained that long-time residents who weathered the storm of federal policies and white flight now feel like they have no choice but to take that money, pushing themselves into further displacement. “And the family that buys that [house] has a 10-year tax abatement.”

And while land displacement and gentrification continue the through-line started by redlining, they’re but a few of the racist ghosts that continue to perpetuate economic violence on communities of color to this day.

As Crowder told Generocity, research shows that as recently as 2018, banks were not lending to Black families and families of color to make repairs on their homes. The 2008 housing bubble erased all gains made in terms of Black homeownership. Last decade, lenders denied Black borrowers looking to purchase in the Point Breeze neighborhood at what can only be described as an astounding clip.

“In fact, this to me is insane,” said O’Connell, who began reading from Crowder’s report. “Financial institutions issued $154 million worth of home loans in Point Breeze to white borrowers between 2012 and 2016. At the same time, they denied nearly twice as many loans to Black borrowers.”

“Redlining is not happening, air quotes, and yet there it’s clearly happening,” she continued.

On top of everything else, COVID-19 continues to compound these issues, as the virus has an outsized effect, both in regards to health and economics on the Black community. Housing is health, said Crowder, who noted that unstable living conditions not only contribute to worsening health outcomes for a constituency that makes up 50 percent of all coronavirus cases and deaths in Philadelphia but also compound intergenerational trauma dating back to slavery.

Closing out the session, Crowder and O’Connell put forth a list of solutions to tackle the current housing crisis at the local, state, federal levels.

Each of them indicated several actionable items that they hoped to see bring about tangible change for the Black community, including Just Cause evictions, raising the minimum wage, changing policy around zoning and tax abatements, and instituting the idea of social housing at the federal level.

But if they could sum up everything under one umbrella, it would be to negate the idea of housing as a commodity.

“Housing is a basic human need,” said Crowder.

And on the Day of Service, O’Connell kept the words from Dr. Martin Luther King’s final published book at the forefront of her mind. In it he wrote about the juxtaposition between community and chaos. Because as Dr. King noted, some people feel threatened by what they might have to give up so that there is a community.

“I’d like to think we’re at a point in time… 50 years from now… it is either going to be all chaos or we are going to choose community,” O’Connell said.

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