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The 50th Anniversary Of The Fair Housing Act

On The 50th Anniversary Of The Fair Housing Act, A Look At Housing In Boston

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President Lyndon B. Johnson presents a souvenir pen to Mr. and Mrs. Lupe Arzola in Washington during the signing of the Fair Housing Act. The Arzolas were residents of the oldest federally subsidized public housing project in Austin, Tex.
AP Photo
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The 50th Anniversary Of The Fair Housing Act

Barbara Howard: Today marks the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, which critics say is losing its bite under President Trump's administration. The Fair Housing Act was signed into law on April 11, 1968 by President Lyndon Baines Johnson. It was meant to protect minority renters and buyers from discrimination. But what effect did the act have here in Boston? Joining us in the studio to explain is James Jennings. He is professor emeritus of urban planning at Tufts University. Thanks for joining us, Professor Jennings.

James Jennings: Thank you.

Howard: So first of all, to understand the importance of the Fair Housing Act, it helps to understand what happened when a black family showed up to rent or buy a place to live. Like, a family sees an ad in the paper, and goes to rent an apartment, and calls up, makes an appointment. Then what happens?

Jennings: Sometimes, depending on the tone of the voice, the person is discouraged — the voice sounded too black, or too Latino.

Howard: And what if they go to buy a house, they go to the bank to get a loan?

Jennings: Banks have a long history of redlining in this country, marking a certain area of a city to either not provide loans to that area, or provide loans at a very high cost, very high interest rates.

Howard: To minorities, but willing to provide loans to white people.

Jennings: Exactly, exactly.

Howard: Okay. And Boston has a real history of redlining.

Jennings: Yes, yes.

Howard: What areas were redlined more than others?

Jennings: Mattapan, Roxbury. We’re looking at communities that at one point may have been predominantly Jewish, predominantly Italian. But once banks started to redline these areas, as blacks sought to become homeowners, white ethnic groups moved out, blacks tried to move in, and many times could not find banks that would loan them money or even provide money to improve the housing that they were able to get.

Howard: So we’re talking about — like for example, along Blue Hill Avenue — that used to be a very Jewish neighborhood, back when, in the fifties, forties?

Jennings: You could say forties, fifties, into the sixties.

Howard: And then it shifted?

Jennings: Yes.

Howard: From mostly Jewish to mostly black?

Jennings: Mostly black. The same occurred in Mattapan.

Howard: You can actually see, right there on city maps which you’ve compiled, this transition of the city by the decade. And those maps show defined neighborhoods where black people were de facto restricted to living in and around the time of the Fair Housing Act. But what parts of the city had, like, nobody black?

Map by James Jennings, Professor Emeritus, Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University. This ‘dot density map’ uses dots to represent the concentration and spread of the black population in Boston by census tract, where one dot represents 50 people. The red dots represent the black population according to 1970 census data. The blue dots represent the black population according to 2012-2016 American Community Survey 5-year estimates. “Today” refers to 2012-2016 American Community Survey 5-year estimates. The total black population in Boston has also changed significantly in this time period. There were 105,207 people counted as black or African-American alone in Boston according to 1970 census data, and 167,282 people counted as black or African-American alone, according to 2012-2016 American Community Survey 5-year estimates.

Jennings: Well, Boston still has some sections of the city, by the way, where no one is black. But you had certain neighborhoods, white working-class neighborhoods — South Boston, Charlestown. More middle-class neighborhoods, again, predominantly white — West Roxbury, parts of Jamaica Plain, for a long time even Hyde Park, parts of Dorchester. These were parts of the city that were almost lily white, and very resistant to the oncoming of black and also Latino families.

Howard: So this notion of redlining was not unique to Boston. It was a national problem.

Jennings: Of course.

Howard: And that brings about the Fair Housing Act.

Jennings: Yes.

Howard: What was the Fair Housing Act aiming to do?

Jennings: To prevent discrimination on the basis of religion, sex, national origin, race, or color. 

Howard: The Fair Housing Act came into effect just, what, a week after Martin Luther King was assassinated. That assassination, did it play a role in getting it passed?

Jennings: Yes, it definitely played a role. The president at the time, Lyndon Baines Johnson, urged his colleagues to push this forward, not just to honor Martin Luther King Jr., but recall that the nation was being torn apart with racial violence and racial tension. And President Johnson was concerned about this. Just a few years later, the act was expanded where now pregnancy was covered. Sexual harassment, sexual orientation, language, sexual discrimination, disabilities, homelessness, families with children. It shows that the Fair Housing Act was a foundation, and a foundation that had to be expanded. Housing is not just housing. It's about a community. It’s about who goes to what schools. It’s access to jobs. And so it’s a piece of legislation that is very encompassing.

Howard: When you look at these maps — you’re an expert — what’s the main thing that jumps out at you?

Jennings: You have a concentration of blacks that I show, 1970, and that concentration is still there in Boston decades later. So to me, that’s the first thing that jumps out. But the other thing that jumps out is that these areas also represent the demographic future of Boston. These are the same areas where we have black and Latino youth living. This is their community. And this is also very economically distressed. There’s greater overcrowding in this area, there’s greater unemployment, there’s greater levels of poverty. And so that is also part of the story we have to come to grips with.

Howard: Okay, thank you so much for coming in.

Jennings: Thank you.

Howard: That’s James Jennings, professor emeritus of urban planning at Tufts University, talking about housing discrimination in Boston on this, the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act. Meantime, Ben Carson, the Trump-appointed head of Housing and Urban Development, denies reports that the enforcement of fair housing laws has been scaled back.

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