The myth and truth about housing segregation in the Bay Area

By Jon Funabiki

Richard Rothstein, one of the most prominent experts on segregation in America, warns that the San Francisco Bay Area will never be able to fully address the current crisis in housing until one truth is acknowledged. It is this:

Segregated housing projects were created by design—not accidentally—throughout the Bay Area because of federal and local government programs and policies, and the legacy of this history profoundly impacts the housing crisis today.

“This myth that it all happened by accident hobbles our ability to do anything about it,” says Rothstein.

Rothstein is a research associate with the Economic Policy Institute, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank, and the author of “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.” He spoke to Bay Area journalists and philanthropic leaders as part of Renaissance Journalism’s Bay Area Media Collaborative, which focuses on the crisis in housing, gentrification and displacement. The program was held October 20 at Northern California Grantmakers.

“Racial segregation in housing was not merely a project of southerners in the former slaveholding Confederacy,” Rothstein writes in his book. “It was a nationwide project of the federal government in the 20th century, designed and implemented by its most liberal leaders.”

Segregated housing was not created by a single federal law, but by “scores of racially explicit laws, regulations, and government practices combined to create a nationwide system of urban ghettos, surrounded by white suburbs.”

Perhaps the best known way in which federal government promoted segregation was redlining—the Federal Housing Administration’s practice, started in the 1930s, of labeling black neighborhoods as too risky for mortgage insurance protection. But the government supported and cultivated segregation in many other ways, from the construction of public housing projects to the backing of whites-only suburban developments. Rothstein notes that the Bay Area is peppered with these cases, from Richmond to San Jose and Daly City to Oakland. A few examples:

* During the war years, the federal government had to build homes for the massive influx of workers needed by Richmond’s shipyard. Houses for black workers were constructed near the shipyards and railroad tracks; houses for white workers were built inland.

* In post-World War II Palo Alto, a group of Stanford University professors and others formed a cooperative to build housing for middle and working-class families. The federal government refused to finance the project because three black families belonged to the co-op. Later, a developer took over the project and agreed to a whites-only policy.

* The Federal Housing Administration backed many other whites-only suburban housing developments such as Daly City’s sprawling Westlake project, where the homes came with real estate covenants prohibiting resale to buyers “not of the white or Caucasian race.”

* Starting in the 1940s, the San Francisco Housing Authority constructed a series of segregated housing projects. Four were designated for white families. A project for black families was built in the Western Addition, a neighborhood that had had a sizable Japanese American population until they were incarcerated during World War II. At a project near the Hunters Point shipyards, black and white families were segregated at the urging of the Navy.

One of the most insidious forms of segregation occurred in East Palo Alto, a formerly all-white community a stone’s throw from Stanford University. In 1954, according to Rothstein’s research, one white resident sold his house to a black family. Almost immediately, agents of the California Real Estate Association began warning of a “Negro invasion” and even staged burglaries to panic white homeowners to sell, a process that came to be known as “block busting.” Within 6 years, East Palo Alto became 82 percent black.

Even though these types of discriminatory policies and practices are now outlawed, Rothstein says they continue to negatively impact racial minorities. They created segregated housing patterns that continue to exist in many places today, and led to segregated schools, which have proven to be detrimental to children of color.

In addition, Rothstein says, the legacy of redlining and housing discrimination has hurt the ability of blacks, over generations, to accumulate equity. For most middle-class Americans, the equity in their homes is their main source of wealth. Studies today show that a vast wealth gap exists between white and black families.

His book cites studies that pegs the median white household wealth at $134,000, while the median black household wealth is $11,000—less than 10 percent as much. So while discriminatory lending policies may have been eliminated, many black families struggle in the housing market.

Rothstein laments that housing segregation has not been resolved in the U.S., though he acknowledges that it’s a complex matter.

“It’s harder to address residential segregation compared to say, white drinking fountains and segregated buses,” he says. “We have adopted a myth that we had nothing to do with it … since it wasn’t created by government, there’s nothing we can do.”

But that, he says, is the continuing myth.