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Property or People? The Enduring Legacies of Racially Discriminatory Housing Policies

“It is hard to argue that housing is not a fundamental human need. Decent, affordable housing should be a basic right for everybody in this country. The reason is simple: without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.”
― Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City

In 1964, Burt Bacharach and Hal David penned the words to the timeless ballad “A House is Not A Home” that has been sung by greats including Dionne Warwick and Luther Vandross. The lyrics go “…a house is not a home, when there’s no one there…” Though written as a love ballad, the song could speak to the housing crisis we’re facing in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Increasingly “there’s no one there,” as families are displaced at staggering numbers.

The issues surrounding the looming housing crisis, the sudden spikes in unemployment, and loss of healthcare, among other things, is not a sudden ‘unprecedented’ conundrum caused by the pandemic. These issues have been a priority for many across this nation. Low-income families, renters, and affordable housing occupants alike feel increased pressure to make ends meet. The bureaucratic response has been lackluster and the day-to-day stresses persist.

In an August 2020 Wall Street Journal article, President Donald Trump and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson attempted to push their narrative of boogeymen invading the plush American suburbs through low-income housing, bringing crime and chaos with them. This subterfuge by the President aims to pit communities against each other, deflecting from the administration’s inability to handle the eviction crisis the nation is currently facing.

From downtown to the suburbs and all points in between, families face rising debt and housing insecurity. The latest data reveals harrowing realities, an estimated 30-40 million people are in danger of eviction. Additionally, people of color are twice as likely to be renters than homeowners, but constitute a disproportionate 80 percent of eviction cases. The brunt of this crisis, like nearly every other crisis we face, is being borne by Black and Latinx communities.

Right now, there is an urgent need for rent relief and relief for affordable housing owners. With the unemployment rate currently at 11 percent nationally, and a projected 1.2 million people being added to those numbers, we are beyond crisis levels. For states and territories like Nevada (24.9 percent), Puerto Rico (23.5 percent), Hawaii (21 percent), California (18.1 percent), Louisiana (16.3 percent), and Georgia (14.5 percent) the numbers are even scarier. Expanding the CARES Act should be a given, but further restrictions have hindered the effectiveness of new unemployment benefits putting both renters and owners in jeopardy.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further exposed the massive chasm that exists between Black and Latinx communities and white America. Decades of unequal and discriminatory housing policies have left certain neighborhoods lacking basic necessities in their own spaces. Neighborhoods that are poorer and have more residents of color can be 5 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit hotter in the summer than wealthier, whiter parts of the same city. Some must travel across their own city to enjoy basic amenities like shady trees and clean drinking water. And it is critical to remember that COVID-19 isn’t the only crisis exposing these disproportionalities: the raging fires and unending smoke on the West Coast harms communities of color more than white communities.

Yet this moment in time presents us with an opportunity to right the wrongs that remain baked into the fabric of this country. There are ways to turn houses back into homes, but it starts with a significant investment in people – specifically the most vulnerable in our society.

We must proactively bolster communities of color and allow for true independence through equitable investments, including programs that promote greater collective and individual home ownership in these communities, in addition to land-based reparations and Black Commons to build wealth. Implementing a basic safety net would create peace of mind for many renters and affordable housing owners – but our city and federal governments must go beyond that to increase paths to home ownership in these communities. Forced segregation through redlining, blockbusting, and discriminatory policies have systemically blocked Black and Latinx communities from homeownership, so it is imperative to dismantle these archaic practices and begin the process of reinvigorating these communities. This includes true implementation of the 1968 Fair Housing Act by reinstituting the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule.

With the pandemic yet to be contained, there’s a very urgent need for financial support for renters and small landlords who own over half of the affordable rental units nationally. Federally, the Center for Disease Control and the US Department of Health and Human Services issued a national moratorium on evictions. Unfortunately, the moratorium does not prevent rent from accumulating, places onerous requirements on tenants, does not prevent landlords from charging late fees, and allows landlords to begin evictions proceedings before the moratorium expires on January 1, 2021. By the end of the year renters could owe up to $70 billion in back-rent. An emergency rent relief package is essential to dealing with these financial struggles. Local governments can act now by extending rent moratoriums and providing protections against evictions filings wrongfully occurring during the moratorium periods. At the community level, we can also examine the often biased proceedings of various Homeowners Associations (HOA’s) and how they choose to enforce certain rules and mitigate fines by allowing renters to be integrated in HOA systems so their needs can be addressed.

Additionally, the expansion of affordable housing for low-wage workers through public-private partnerships can help facilitate better and sustainable integration provisions and diversify families based on class. The goal being a sustainable development model that promotes upward mobility, ensuring generational growth, development, and wealth building.

We are living in unprecedented times – and unprecedented times call for unprecedented action. These issues we face are not new but will require new vision and fortitude to help our communities survive and thrive in the coming years. With co-occurring crises that threaten people’s homes, and the massive social mobilization over the loss of Black lives and police brutality, one must ask, ‘what do we as a society value more – American property, or the actual people that inhabit those properties?’. If we truly value people and the communities in which they live, we must be willing to take bold action to weather this crisis and build sustainable homes for all.

Additional Resources


Invest Atlanta COVID-19 Recovery & Relief Resource Center


City of Chicago Family and Support Services


City of Denver Recover Support & Resources

Los Angeles:

LA County Responds (Resources)

Keep California Healthy


COVID-19 Updates and Resources

San Francisco Bay Area:

SF Resource Center

Family Resources w/ Special Health Care Needs