Color-Coded: Race, Class, and the Lasting Legacies of Redlining

Somerville, 1935:

Infiltration of negro. Detrimental influences: obsolescence, low-class occupants, congested area. Foreign born concentrated at western end and negro in central part. Section south of the railroad is a slum area with negro concentrated near the west side. Trend of desirability over the next 10 years: down. Overall area: hazardous.


It is 1935. The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) is one of the most important agencies built by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. Each year, between 1935 and 1940, HOLC releases governmental reports of neighborhood area descriptions and “security maps.” The color that HOLC classifies the neighborhood you are trying to live in—green for best, blue for desirable, yellow for declining, and red for hazardous—determines whether you will be given a loan and allowed to purchase a home. Black folks, poor folks, and foreign-born (generally, any non-European) immigrants are seen as infiltrations that bring property values down, and turn neighborhoods into hazardous and dangerous slums.


It is 2017. The same neighborhood of Somerville, MA, specifically the area surrounding Davis Square that was described above, is filled with artisanal oatmeal stores, overpriced second-hand clothing boutiques, and expensive coffee shops that underpay their workers. Walk through the streets and you will generally only see young, White college students and nuclear families with blond hair spending $10 for a carton of strawberries at Dave’s Fresh Pasta. What happened, and how did this change so rapidly?


Robert Nelson hopes to better understand this phenomenon through his work as the creator of Mapping Inequality. His project takes 150 maps and over 5000 individual area descriptions—previously accessible only in person at the Archives— and integrates them into one interactive map. It allows users to search for cities across the US, and selecting a city reveals the old map images, including the color ____ and quotes pulled from the HOLC “security map” documents.


“HOLC, these maps, and their accompanying documentation have been named as some of the most important factors in preserving racial segregation, intergenerational poverty, and the continued wealth gap between White Americans and most other groups in the US.” He continues, “many of these [housing] agencies operated under…widespread assumptions about the profitability of racial segregation. Through HOLC, in particular, real estate appraisers used the apparent racial value of a community to determine its economic value.”


Redlining, the phenomenon that Nelson is describing, not only formally legalized housing discrimination—against primarily Black folks—but also lay the foundation for the continuation of segregated cities and neighborhoods based on race and class. The “red” neighborhoods, deemed as hazardous and unfit for investment, were then left in disrepair. Any attempts to economically revitalize the neighborhoods by bringing in small business operations were blocked and unable to rent the space or take out a bank loan because it was considered a high-risk venture. With no new revenue or business coming in, when existing ones shut down, whole areas of “red” neighborhoods were left decimated. As a result, whole communities of Black and Brown folks were unable to gain equal, or any, access to banking, proper health care, insurance, or groceries.


And the cycle of intergenerational poverty continues. Often when we read or learn about redlining, the research is focused on large cities like Birmingham or Detroit. Because of this, we forget that it occurred where we live and work today with continued legacies. As Cohen says, “in red neighborhoods, you couldn’t get a loan. Nobody could get a loan from the government. You could get one from a private contractor. The difference is if you missed a payment, the government would give you a break. The private guys wouldn’t.” This led to cycles of Black and Brown people being stuck, unable to move out of their underfunded neighborhoods or move into new communities. Cohen continues, “If you are Black or foreign born, you have to get one of those private contracts, and then if you miss a payment, you’re gone. That’s just what the company wanted…so they could sell the same house four times in a year at increasing prices each time—because you have no choice about where you’re going.”


James Jennings, Professor Emeritus in the Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning department, says segregation has been one result of redlining in the Somerville, Medford and Cambridge areas, and “there is still extensive segregation as a result of earlier redlining. Redlining also impacted how Black people and other people of color could accumulate wealth based on housing equity […] as well as impacting the quality of public schooling throughout the city.” Cohen explains that the demographics of Somerville at the time, which was largely working class and redlined, led to the Somerville school system to be underfunded and unsupported because the students and their families didn’t come from wealth. “There existed less pressure on the schools to produce students who were going to be going to competitive colleges,” Cohen says. This produced generations of young people who remained impoverished because they were not given the same opportunities in school as their peers who lived in blue or green neighborhoods. Cohen explains the real irony is “that the prices in these red areas could be higher than the prices in the green areas. Because you had no choice but to live in the red. And those who lived in blue or green areas could go wherever they wanted, and pay whatever they wanted.”


Jennings highlights that redlining and gentrification have built off each other: “Redlining confined people of color to certain urban spaces, while gentrification serves to remove working-class and low-income populations from these same places.” This pushed communities of color into a rut, as they are being forced to once again leave their homes which they were unfairly confined to in the first place. Gentrification follows a specific pattern, typically “an influx of wealthy newcomers without any root in a certain community in a context of rapidly increasing rents and less availability of affordable houses for residents.” What follows is economic development of the area attracting more wealthy newcomers who are able to afford the rent increases that come with this “revitalization.”


Some of Jennings’ work centers around dispelling the myth of “gentrification as urban salvation…an idea that is ahistorical and inaccurate.” He continues, “there is a presumption in this idea that Black people, Latinos, Asians, working-class people have ‘occupied’ urban space without any efforts or struggles to improve their communities. This is then used to justify gentrification as beautiful [when] in fact it represents a dismissal of history, and the role and impact of wealth.”


Danny Leblanc, the CEO of Somerville Community Corporation, a nonprofit “dedicated to empowering residents to sustain a diverse and affordable Somerville,” underlines just how much Somerville has changed in recent years as a result of gentrification. “I moved here 41 years ago…I can tell you for sure that you can’t even imagine how different it was. There was a deep economic recession in the late 1980s and 1990s, but beginning around the mid-1990s, the cost of housing in Somerville has just gone steadily upward. So one of the big results of that is we’ve seen a dramatic increase in young people, 19-34 year olds.” Somerville has more than double the state average of people in the age range of 19-34. What could come across as a minor statistic has large consequences: groups of three to four young folks can afford more in rent than a family can; landlords know this and often will choose to rent an apartment to a group of young people over a family.


Even more, purchasing property has become unreachable for anyone besides the wealthy. Speaking to his own experience, Cohen said, “My street in Cambridgeport, when we moved onto the street…most of the people living on that street were related to someone living on the street. They were teachers—and still are teachers. But that is changing rapidly. My house, that I bought for $200,000 would cost $1,000,000 if I sell it. I mean, who can afford that? None of us could buy our house now.”


The gentrification will not stop—instead, as LeBlanc expresses, it will increasingly get worse until only the wealthiest can afford to live here in these same areas that once were seen as “uninhabitable” by redlining policies. “The past six to eight years, we’ve seen major new development at a scale that Somerville hasn’t seen in decades really,” stressed LeBlanc. Things like the development of Assembly Square—which previously included only a small strip mall and is now filled with “luxury” apartments, shops and restaurants—and the upcoming Green Line extension will continue changing these communities.


However, along with patterns of displacement come patterns of resistance. “Community organizing is one of the only things we can do,” emphasizes LeBlanc. In anticipation of how the Green Line extension would continue to gentrify the Union Square area of Somerville, community members created “Union United” in 2014 as an effort to ensure the development results in “tangible benefits, not displacement for the Union Square community.” Union United has created a Neighborhood Council that aims to influence the redevelopment, ensuring access to affordable housing and having the voice of the community present in how the space will develop. More recently, Somerville Community Corporation passed a bill to increase inclusionary housing in Somerville— guaranteeing that if a developer is, for example, going to build a 500-unit development, at least 100 of those have to—by law—be affordable.


Legacies of segregation, redlining, and racist housing policies haunt the ways that communities exist today. Research shows that Black families making $100,000 live in the kinds of neighborhoods inhabited by White families making $30,000. This is a direct result of HOLC’s policies in the present, and one that is exasperated by the continued gentrification of Black spaces. stresses that even against a seemingly immovable force, communities have to keep fighting. “We can’t stop this. It’s an uphill struggle, but we can win small battles. Community organizing is the key.”




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