Cheryl Brunson had a stroke seven years ago that left her with a proclivity for low-sodium foods and a walking stick. You wouldn’t guess. In the years since, she’s gained custody of her two grandchildren, cared for her schizophrenic daughter, and helped mount a class action lawsuit against property developers in northeast Washington D.C.
“The thing I like about living here is the space – the big bedrooms, the hardwood floors. It’s tight around here; everyone knows everybody’s business”, she tells me. Brunson has lived at Brookland Manor since 1994. Her warm flat is replete with family photographs and childrens’ toys.
Brookland Manor has become a contemporary stage for America’s long history of urban segregation, the effects of which are still visible like pockmarks on the skin of its cities. Although the Supreme Court formally outlawed segregation in 1917, the institution continued in ways both covert and overt. Today, entrenched wealth inequality and differentiated property values have divided America’s cities by race, a fact that is unlikely to change without proactive intervention.
Brookland’s indistinct maze of depression-era blocks is principally home to low-income African-American recipients of housing support benefit. In autumn 2014, real estate developer Mid City Financial declared plans to redevelop the estate and build 1750 new apartments Some 373 will go to low-income residents; 200 of those will be reserved for senior citizens.
Residents concede that improvements are needed. But it’s the fine details that have caught heat. Brookland doesn’t have 200 senior tenants. Plans to triple the density of apartments entail cutting back their size, meaning large families will have to split up or relocate. The company has hired private security guards to ostensibly keep the peace, but their heavy-handed tactics allegedly find bogus grounds for criminality. And evictions for as little as $25 have become commonplace.
Two systems of justice
“Brookland Manor has been turned into a camp”, Dorothy Davis, a longtime Brookland resident tells me. The grassy areas where people once grilled barbecue in the summer are now surrounded by chain-link fences.
Mid City claim the fences prevent criminals fleeing arrest on foot, but residents say they’re a hazard that could trap them in a fire. “You can’t step on the grass… you can’t lean on the fence. They’ve moved along mothers waiting for the school bus”, Davis says. Signs affixed to the apartments say loitering is prohibited, but as one resident points out, there’s no such thing as a loitering law in D.C.
Benign activities now court “infractions”. Those with a number of infractions to their name risk attracting eviction lawsuits. Mid City Financial declined to respond to a request for a list of the activities that count as infractions, yet residents say that sitting on the grass, leaning on fences and receiving guests with barring notices are all prohibited. “We never lived by infractions before”, Brunson says. “Now, we’re facing a double system of justice.” First the justice of state law, and second, the rules laid down by Brookland’s private guards.
In 2016, the Washington Post found eviction notices had soared at Brookland Manor. Of the 373 eviction lawsuits submitted from January 2014 to March 2016, the estate reportedly sued residents at least 59 times for debts of $100 or less. Underlying these evictions is a logic that is both economic and sociological. As Yasmina Mrabet, an organiser at the advocacy group One D.C. puts it, “developers have painted a narrative of a community that needs to be cleaned up – a community of working class black families filled with criminals and drug dealers”.
A city divided
Washington D.C. is America’s fifth most segregated city. Its demography can be divided by drawing a straight line through its centre. The east is home to black residents, while the west is largely white.
For visitors to the city, it is striking how D.C.’s segregated makeup reinforces perceptions of African American areas as “unsafe” or “sketchy”. Arriving in D.C. as a white foreigner living in a historically “black” neighbourhood, I encountered warnings from colleagues about certain neighbourhoods and the cautionary tales of a supermarket cashier who discouraged me from shopping on the first until the fifth of each month, when locals on food stamps go to buy groceries. “It gets seriously ghetto in here – you don’t wanna be coming then”, the cashier warned.
In his recent book The Colour of Law, Richard Rothstein traces how the country’s history of racial zoning had a double effect. By instituting separation of black and white Americans, racial zoning entrenched wealth inequalities and engendered a perception of black areas as sites of deprivation and criminality. Once set in motion, this became difficult to undo.
Restrictive covenants prevented African Americans from moving into white neighborhoods, and racism hindered the supply of agents willing to rent to black families. African Americans were forced to do more with less, paying exorbitant rents to exploitative landlords that reified slum-like living conditions. Whereas white housing has often appreciated in value over time, the property values of black areas designated as “unsafe” or “sketchy” tend to stagnate or decline, exacerbating intergenerational inequality and impeding social mobility.
Underlying segregation is a self-fulfilling cycle of differentiated property values. When William and Daisy Myers became the first African American citizens to move into Levittown, Pennsylvania in 1957, a white resident told Life magazine that William was “probably a nice guy, but every time I look at him, I see $2000 drop off the value of my house”. As the influential Chicago sociologist Homer Hoyt wrote in the 1930s, “racial mixtures tend to have a depressing effect upon land values”, underscoring how urban segregation is shot through with paranoia about property prices.
Arguably little about this view has changed. In its 2014 submission to the D.C. Zoning commission, Mid City Financial described how the area’s “crime problems” can be traced to its concentration of “very low income residents”, noting that “there are only a small number of market rate tenants” on the estate. The qualitative presumption here is that more people paying market rates would assuage the problems that stem from the estate’s low-income African American tenants.
Two of Brookland’s buildings now stand empty. Walking through the estate with Miss Brunson, we stop to look at a CGI rendering of the new development pinned to a steel fence. “I don’t see no African American people in this picture,” she says, pointing to her digitally rendered new neighbours. “If this is what they consider a mixed community… I’m not sure I can see people that look like me.”
Repairing the past
Restrictive covenants may be a thing of the past, but discrimination still persists. As Rothstein tells me, “today’s policies end up reinforcing segregation because of their effects – not because of their intent.” History can be a burdensome weight. “Once you create a situation like we did with intent, the structures can be so powerful that you don’t need additional intent in order to maintain them”, he adds.
Section 8 vouchers, which cover rent that exceeds 30 per cent of a tenant’s income, are one example of a policy that discriminates by effect. While the practice of refusing to let to section 8 families is outlawed in D.C., landlords still elect to bar families renting with subsidies.
And even without direct discrimination, the vouchers are often insufficient to move out of largely deprived areas and break the cycle of segregation. In D.C., 92 per cent of section 8 recipients are African American – and 77 per cent of those live on the east side.
“I’m worried that, with these new matchbox apartments they’re gonna build, I won’t be able to find another three-bed apartment for me and my grandkids. You can’t really get that kind of thing in the metropolitan area,” Brunson tells me. She fears a bind. Without staying within D.C.’s metropolitan border, she won’t be eligible for a housing voucher – but the voucher may not be enough to afford a three-bedroom apartment in this zone. America no longer needs laws to prevent its African American citizens from moving into white neighbourhoods. Market forces, coupled with segregation’s progenitor – hardened wealth inequalities – do this job by themselves.
Relying on the market to remedy the dirge of affordable housing appears in America, as in other countries, is an inadequate solution. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s housing rhetoric is tough, but her market-oriented solutions are tepid. The city’s Department of Housing & Community Development lends state money to private developers. But when wealth inequality intersects with race, poor residents that can’t afford to live in newly developed areas will find themselves pushed to the periphery or resigned to the “ghetto”.
There may be no single salve for America’s segregated cities. But, as Rothstein argues, those who craft policies could begin by proactively intervening in the market, by ring fencing more housing for low-income residents, and by buying up housing in white neighbourhoods and selling it cheaply to African Americans.
Disrupting the property market with this type of affirmative action may be unlikely to garner support from a nation that often appears intent on forgetting its own history. But taking steps to remedy the effects of segregation is essential if America’s meritocratic dream is to be more than a balm spread over its divided past.