Fifty years after the Fair Housing Act, neighborhoods in Chattanooga are still segregated
Dr. Clark White was 10 years old when his father decided to buy their family a home.
They had the money. Carl E. White worked as a teacher in 1958. He would later become principal of Calvin Donaldson School. A street near the school is still named for him. Clark White's mother, Nellie C. White, also worked as a librarian at Sunny Side Elementary. In her spare time, she volunteered as a docent at the Hunter Museum of American Art.
A World War II veteran, White's father had used the G.I. Bill to pursue a higher education, first at Tuskegee University and then at Tennessee State University, where he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees.
Like most returning service members, he wanted a piece of the America he helped protect.
White can still picture the house, several stories tall, all brick.
"Wow," he told his sister after seeing it with his father for the first time. "We are going to get a nice house!"
He remembers just as clearly the day his father took him to see a banker about a loan to buy the home.
"We are not loaning you people money west of Cherry Street," White said the banker told them, making it clear the problem was neither his father's earnings nor his credit.
It was a common scene in Chattanooga and across the country at the time, a decade before Congress unexpectedly passed the Fair Housing Act just days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, which sparked riots nationwide and lent political momentum to civil rights legislation.
White's family was black, and their race alone meant their freedom was limited.
Americans were becoming homeowners at an unprecedented rate thanks to a booming post-war economy and a federal government push to incentivize and increase home ownership. Single-family homes, more and more, were becoming the way families built wealth, accessed quality public schools and offered financial security to their children.
A white family seeking to invest in a home in Chattanooga in 1958 could choose to live anywhere they could afford. Not so for black families. Blacks weren't allowed to purchase property in areas that were valued, thanks, in part, to a federal agency that created color- coded maps of metropolitan cities across America, including Chattanooga, designating areas of risk and credit worthiness and areas deemed "hazardous."
These infamous "redlining" maps, produced between 1935 and 1940 by 250 real estate appraisers, mortgage lenders and developers for the New Deal's Home Owners' Loan Corporation, set the rules for nearly a century of real estate practice.
"More than a half- century of research has shown housing to be for the twentieth century what slavery was to the antebellum period, namely the broad foundation of both American prosperity and racial inequality," wrote a team of scholars from four universities on the website Mapping Inequality, which provides access to scores of corporation maps, including the 1938 "security map" of Chattanooga, and documents only recently made public that explain why certain areas were redlined.
In Chattanooga, seven areas of the city were deemed hazardous and all of them were neighborhoods where blacks lived. The area around Clifton Hills and along Rossville Boulevard going into Georgia was redlined. Part of the map's explanation calls it "the section in which most of the negro population resides." The area around the former Cameron Hill, where the BlueCross BlueShield headquarters now sits, was also deemed hazardous because "negro concentration is in the southeast and southwest part of the area" and "a colored low-rent housing project has been started on Main Street," which is now called College Hill Courts.
Orchard Knob, where the Clark family did eventually build a home, was also redlined. The description of the area acknowledges it had nice houses, adequate transportation and school facilities, scattered stores and access to a city park. The problem: "Sales activity is almost entirely in negro properties and is fair for them — but there is no demand for white properties," the map stated.
"They were trying to maintain a color caste system," said Clark, who left Chattanooga when he was 19 because he wanted to pursue a higher education and live in a place that afforded more opportunities to African-Americans.
Chattanooga has changed dramatically since the Fair Housing Act was signed into law 50 years ago, making discriminatory practices, such as redlining, illegal and directing governments to "affirmatively further" fair housing. Neighborhoods are no longer exclusively white or exclusively black by design and federal, state and local governments are no longer enforcing a slew of racist policies that enshrined segregation. Still, residential segregation remains a reality in Chattanooga and across the country.
High degree of segregation
To study segregation patterns, researchers use a measure called the dissimilarity index, which looks at whether one particular group is distributed across U.S. census tracts in an area in the same way as another group, and a high value on a scale of zero to 100 indicated the two groups tend to live in different tracts.
And according to that measure, while Chattanooga maintains a high degree of segregation, some integration has taken place in the past decades. Census data shows the city's dissimilarity value fell from 64.6 in 1980 to 57.8 in 2010. The dissimilarity measure for the Chattanooga region also dropped from 73 to 63 in the same time period. In other words, 63 percent of the region's black population would have to move to a different census tract in order for blacks and whites to be equally distributed.
However, several areas remain almost entirely white or black, census data shows. For example, census tract 122, which includes Avondale and neighborhoods along Glass Street and Dodson Avenue, and census tract 19, which includes Alton Park, are more than 90 percent black. Four other census tracts in the city (16, 4, 114.44 and 12) are more than 75 percent black.
Whites fled Chattanooga's downtown in response to federal efforts to integrate schools and neighborhoods. Federally funded roads and highways allowed for white families to live in new suburban areas while continuing to work in the inner city.
In the 1980s, large swaths of the city, such as the Southside, were more than 95 percent black, but the marketing of downtown revitalization efforts has drawn whites back into the city. In fact, a recent census analysis by The Washington Post showed Chattanooga has the most disproportionate percentage of white-to-black newcomers of the nation's 100 largest metro areas. In other words, Chattanooga is the "most lopsided" city in America, the report stated.
Downtown integration may be a short lived phenomenon, though, argues Ken Chilton, the former head of the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Study in Chattanooga and associate professor of public administration at Tennessee State University. The process of gentrification increases diversity for a time, he said. But eventually the increase in real estate prices that comes to blighted areas where investment is made forces most legacy residents out.
A recent study by the home-finding website Trulia underscores Chilton's point. America's biggest housing markets are becoming more diverse, according to their report, "Housing Diversity: What Home Values Say About Inequality," but in most markets the most affordable housing is disappearing. Trulia studied home values, as well as renter- and owner-occupied housing across the nation's biggest metro areas and found that in the past five years, as home values became more polarized in a market, racial segregation increased.
Now, segregation is upheld by economic factors that appear to be race neutral, Chilton said. Government policies, dating back to the country's inception, have devastated African-American families financially, putting them far behind their white counterparts in earnings and home ownership rates. And decades of research also have established that racial and economic segregation have contributed to generational poverty and greatly hindered economic mobility rates.
The consequences are still evident in local data. In Hamilton County, the median household income for whites is $55,963. Meanwhile, the median household income for blacks is $29,416. The poverty rate also is very different. Right now, 10 percent of the county's white population is poor, while 28 percent of the county's black population is poor, census data shows.
The black home ownership rate, now 40.6 percent in Chattanooga, has fallen since 2000, but the white home ownership rate, now 62.3 percent in Chattanooga, has increased in the same time period.
Barriers to fair housing
So why haven't cities such as Chattanooga made more progress?
Racism is still having an impact on blacks' housing choices, experts say. Fair housing tests conducted by the Tennessee Fair Housing Council in Nashville on race showed a difference in treatment in 100 percent of the test cases.
But fewer race-related cases are leading to administrative or legal intervention, said Kathy Trawick, executive director of the council. The largest share of fair housing complaints, these days, come from people with disabilities who are not being reasonably accommodated as the law requires. HUD records show that, since 2012, 50 complaints of housing discrimination were filed from Hamilton County, and 24 were race related.
"It's not that racial discrimination doesn't happen anymore," she said. "It has become very subtle."
When the Fair Housing Act passed, it appeared to have teeth. But, an investigation by ProPublica, published in 2010, showed that president after president, both Democrats and Republicans, refused to use U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development funds to fight segregation, caving to political pressure.
HUD has sent billions upon billions of dollars to cities all across the country, including Chattanooga, to promote low- and moderate-income housing. And to get the money, recipients were required to identify obstacles to fair housing, record their efforts to overcome the obstacles and certify they don't discriminate.
For example, the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development, which disperses HUD funds across the state, listed these barriers to fair housing in a 2013 statewide report.
-Discriminatory terms and conditions in the rental markets.
-Discriminatory patterns in home purchase loan denials.
-Discriminatory patterns in predatory lending.
-Lack of local fair housing ordinances or policies.
-Lack of local government understanding of its duty to further fair housing.
-Lack of uniformity of codes and land use policies.
The city of Chattanooga did its own study of fair housing impediments in 2013, and in its report, "affordability" was named as the main impediment to fair housing in the city. Since Mayor Andy Berke created the city's first fair housing program under the Office of Multicultural Affairs, city staff have conducted fair housing tests and tester trainings, launched a fair housing book club and educated nearly 3,500 people on fair housing. On April 20, the city plans to host a fair housing conference at the Edney Building downtown.
The city also has a nine-point plan to address the lack of affordable housing in Chattanooga, according to the document submitted to HUD, which includes establishing an affordable housing trust, establishing a land-bank authority, using tax incentives to encourage affordable development, amending codes to allow single apartments within homes in certain zones and setting up a vacant lot "clearing house" database to connect developers with sites and provide a menu of available incentives.
The then-ProPublica reporter, Nikole Hannah- Jones, who is being brought to Chattanooga by the nonprofit UnifiED in March, found that HUD has withheld money from communities violating the Fair Housing Act less than a handful of times since the law went into affect. In fact, HUD sent monies to communities even after they were found by courts to have promoted segregated housing or been sued by the U.S. Department of Justice.
It's simply not politically expedient to withhold funds, said Lisa Rice, executive vice president of the National Fair Housing Alliance. Fair Housing was the most personally felt of all the civil rights laws, she said, which is why many were willing to integrate workplaces but not neighborhoods.
Mitigating the damage, however, will require real commitment, she said. There are 4 million instances of housing discrimination each year nationwide and little money is put toward prosecuting them or educating people about their rights.
"The federal government put billions of dollars into creating segregated communities," Rice said. "But we haven't put billions into undoing them."
Last month, the Trump administration announced it was postponing enforcement of an Obama-era rule, which was issued in 2015 and required recipients of block grants and housing aid to reassess their housing segregation and submit a plan to reverse it.
Chattanooga was one of many places preparing to use the comprehensive tool developed by HUD to analyze fair housing this year, but Sandra Gober, community development manager for the city's Economic and Community Development Department, said the city received notice that "the requirement for the extensive assessment has been postponed until after October 2020."
"In the meantime, we follow the requirement to update our analysis every three to five years."
Contact staff writer Joan McClane at email@example.com or 423-757-6601.