I’m coming to the conclusion that it’s the really boring issues that have the greatest effect on people’s lives.

It’s those highly technical topics that are complex and dominated by special interests, and yet are essential to basic quality of life, that have a vast, invisible impact on our society and economy.

Housing policy is a clear example – almost sinister in its monotony. Everybody needs it and no one understands it.

Making meaningful changes in the field requires a knowledge of zoning rules about floor-to-area ratios, or construction project management, or the financing structures of the real estate market. These topics are difficult to understand for people who deal with them every day.

Add that housing is tied to poverty, race, property and schools – among the easiest topics to discuss in America – and you’ve got a perfect storm of dysfunctional politics.

Misconceptions About Fair Housing

If I go back to what my perceptions were about the housing market, say, after high school, I understand why many people have misconceptions about discrimination against poor people and people of color in housing. Here are the facts as I understood them:

  • There is a difference between de facto vs. de jure segregation. De jure segregation is now illegal, and you can’t do anything about where people choose to live.
  • People are mostly free to live where they want. Their housing decisions are guided by free choices in the open market.
  • There are a few bad people who discriminate, but they are isolated and on their way out. And they live in the South.
  • Government actions do not materially affect housing decisions anymore, and actions to decrease segregation usually backfire.

If you’re familiar with the field in anything more than a cursory way, you probably chuckled at a few of these – but such is the result of a public school education on civil rights and the history of the 20th century.

If you take these assumptions for granted, a whole worldview emerges. People should be able to move out of bad neighborhoods. Government has already done its duty to break down barriers. Individuals don’t benefit from discrimination in any ways that they have the power to change.

The reality is massively more complicated.

This country has a shameful history of private and public discrimination, mandated and abetted by every level of government. It’s taken place everywhere, not just the South, not just in conservative areas. As part of my continuing reeducation I have assembled a short, incomplete list of discriminatory policies and tactics that continue to affect us today. Some are for the exclusion of poor people overall, and are merely disproportionately targeted at people of color, others are used explicitly to foster segregation.

Ever-increasing List of Discriminatory Tactics in Housing and Mobility

Adding to the list, the question that emerges is not “why can’t poor people just get it together?” It is “why do we continue to dream up progressively more complex and sinister ways to segregate ourselves economically and racially?”

Housing segregation is just as harmful as educational segregation. If the housing you’re allowed to access isn’t as high quality, is a financial trap, or gains little value over the years, it is the difference between having the next generation’s college fund and not.

Discriminatory practices are the major reason for the wealth gap that exists today in black and white households today – whites have had several generations of access to high quality assets, and blacks have not.

Pew Wealth Gap
According to the Pew Research Center, the median white household has 13 times the wealth of the median black family. If you don’t count cars as assets, the gap increases to 69 times (Slate).

Imagine your family’s wealth was reduced to 1/13th (or 1/69th) of its current value and how it would affect your quality of life.

What exists today can seem like a minor barrier compared to Jim Crow or redlining. But small culturally enforced biases, backed up by years of government policy, cement into an insurmountable wall of discriminatory practices.

I told you not to come here looking for good news.


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