News

Joe's Summer Sabbatical

September 9th, 2019 by Joe Kriesberg

Thanks to the generosity and support of the MACDC board and staff, I was able to take a two-month summer sabbatical this year – my first full summer vacation in a very long time.  I was able to spend lots of time with various family members, read books, travel, and enjoy countless hours of biking, swimming and hiking!  For those wondering “what did you do all summer” I figured that I would share some of the highlights.

Syracuse - The sabbatical started with a 4-day trip to Syracuse to see my dad.  My wife Dina and I picked up our son Mike in Albany and drove to Syracuse to hang with my dad and his partner.  On the way back to Boston, we packed up Mike’s apartment in Albany (he had just quit his job) and brought him home to continue his search for a job in New York City.

Backpacking - After celebrating the 4th of July in Boston (including attending the Rolling Stones Concert at Gillette Stadium!), I flew to Idaho to meet up with my brother for a backpacking trip in the White Clouds & Saw Tooth Mountain area.  The scenery was incredible; it was great to hang out with my brother; the hiking was challenging but not exhausting; and I was able to sleep (sort of) on the ground in my tiny tent!

Boston - I then had 11 days in Boston with no travel.  This was certainly the longest “stay-cation” of my life but I was able to get into a routine of biking, swimming, reading, visiting with a few friends and helping my son with his job search (mostly nagging).

My Dad's Birthday - In late July, my family and my brother’s family met up with my dad and his partner in Beacon, NY (the Hudson Valley region) to spend a weekend celebrating his 93rd birthday by going to not one, but two art museums (he loves art!)   It was great for him to catch up with all four of his grandchildren and for the cousins to reconnect for the first time in many months.  His quote of the day: “Birthdays are fun – I should have more of them!”   I agree!

Cape Cod - Dina and I finally were able to take our own vacation on Cape Cod in early August (she was NOT on sabbatical after all!). We were unable to go last year so it was great to be back on the beaches where we only had two shark alerts!  My Dad and Paula spent a couple of days with us (yes, our third visit of the summer!) and then Mike made a surprise visit as well to tell us that he had accepted a job offer from the New Israel Fund in New York City!

Reading books – not memos - After the Cape, we came back to Boston for a few more days of hanging around.  I was able to make progress on my goal of reading more books than I usually do.  Over the course of the summer, I was able to read: Washington Black, the Cairo Trilogy (Palace Walk, Palace of Desire and Sugar Street), The Bluest Eye, Evicted, Just Mercy, and Say Nothing.  I enjoyed some good podcasts (check out Crimetown to learn about the mob in Providence) and TV shows (City on a Hill; Six Feet Under) and watched a fair number of Red Sox games (although not as many as I would have thought)  Of course, none of this interfered with biking or swimming (or both) virtually every day I was in town.  I don’t think I swam so much during the summer since I worked as a lifeguard in 1984!

Glacier National Park - My next adventure was to go to Montana with my sons Mike and Josh.  We started our trip in Kalispel where we attended our first ever Rodeo.  The scene was exactly what you might imagine with lots of families, women wearing awesome boots and men wearing their cowboy hats.  There was much pageantry, including honoring our military and recognizing Native American heritage and culture. The competition was either incredible or awful, depending on your view of Rodeos, but it was definitely a great opportunity to experience a different piece of American culture.  My kids loved it.  We then spent four days hiking in Glacier National Park.  We saw amazing scenery, lots of wildlife (including a Wolverine!) and walked along and over the Continental Divide. Spending four days hiking with my kids was a great way to spend time together (no cell phone service!), create memories and share new experiences.  My son called the trip “magical” and it was.

Seattle - The three of us then drove to Seattle and they got to see for the first time how expansive and empty the American West can be. In Seattle, we met up with Dina and most of her family so we could celebrate her sister’s 60th birthday. 

My Sabbatical Buddy - One special treat this summer was spending time with my 23-year-old son Mike.  As noted, he quit his job on the same day that my sabbatical began and he began his new job with the New Israel Fund on the same day that I returned to work so we were both home and “unemployed” for the same 9 weeks!  He has been in Albany for the past five years so we have not had nearly so much time to hang out and honestly, we will probably never have a summer like this again. We talked, we played basketball, we ate, we cooked (Dina loved coming home to our (mostly his) meals!), we worked on his job search and then his apartment search.  Dina says he was my “sabbatical buddy”!  It was bittersweet to drive him to New York City on Labor Day weekend and help him set up his new apartment in Astoria, Queens.  I am proud that he had the courage to quit a job he disliked, to pursue something that he really cares about (peace and democracy in Israel) and to take on the adventure of living in New York. But I’m really going to miss having him around. 

If you are wondering whether I really avoided work during the sabbatical, the answer is “mostly”.  While I contacted the staff on one or two occasions early on, I did not talk/email/text with any staff for the last five or six weeks. Yes, I occasionally checked my email, but I did not respond to them and very much enjoyed reading an email and saying to myself “I don’t have to deal with that!”  Overall, I’ve been pretty checked out and was able to enjoy my summer without thinking about work very much.

None of this would have been possible if MACDC did not have such a terrific and dedicated staff. I want to especially thank Shirronda Almeida for serving as interim executive director and to everyone on the staff who picked up my workload over the summer.  I think it was a great learning opportunity for them and the experience will make our organization stronger, more stable and better prepared for the future.

I am eager to get back to work (starting with those emails and memos that are waiting for me) and I am excited about our agenda for this fall.  But if you catch me day dreaming at a meeting, you can probably guess that I’ll be reliving my summer memories!

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Housing report documents shortage of affordable housing – but with a silver lining

March 20th, 2019 by Joe Kriesberg

Last week, the National Low-Income Housing Coalition released, The GAP – A Shortage of Affordable Homes, its annual report documenting the shortage of housing available for low-income Americans.  The report provides many depressingly familiar statistics:

  • 7 million extremely low-income (ELI) American households (households with incomes below 30% of the Area Median Income) lack access to housing that is affordable to them, including nearly 170,000 households in Massachusetts;
  • In Massachusetts, for every 100 ELI households there are just 46 affordable homes;
  • 72 percent of households with incomes below 50% of the Area Median Income are severely cost-burdened, meaning they pay over 50% of their income to rent;
  • People of color are much more likely to be cost burdened then their white counterparts.

Clearly, we have work to do.

At the same time, if you dig a little deeper into the report, there is another lesson to be learned: smart housing policies work and pay long-term dividends. 

According to the report, Massachusetts has one of the smallest affordability gaps in the country with 46 affordable homes per 100 ELI households, compared to a national average of 37.  Massachusetts ranks 14th of the 50 states.  The Boston MSA ranks third in the nation with the lowest affordability gap, just below Providence (whose MSA includes parts of Massachusetts) and Pittsburgh.  In Boston, we have 46 affordable homes for every 100 ELI households – a dire shortage. But in L.A., they have just 18!  Dallas has 20 and Phoenix has just 21.

How is it possible that one of the most expensive regions in the country is also the third best in the country in terms of providing actual affordable homes to ELI people?  Unlike many housing studies that show Massachusetts to be one of the worst states in the country when it comes to housing affordability, this study considers government subsidized apartments and other homes with rent or price restrictions.  In fact, this report recognizes the successful efforts of affordable housing advocates, organizers, policy makers, and developers, over many decades here in Massachusetts, to produce subsidized housing.  Policies like Chapter 40B (which encourages all cities and towns to provide their fair share of affordable housing), programs like state-supported public housing, and the Massachusetts Rental Voucher Program are making a real difference.   In the City of Boston, 20% of the housing stock has long term affordability restrictions and fully one-third of Boston’s rental housing has restricted rents. One-third!

Our success relative to other states and regions should not be an excuse for complacency. It should be viewed as a reason to do more, because investing in affordable housing really does make a difference,

I was reflecting on these lessons recently when I attended CEDAC’s 40th Anniversary Celebration where Mel King was honored for his legacy in launching the community development field, and again, a few days later, at a wonderful memorial service held to celebrate the life and legacy of Amy Anthony, Governor Dukakis’ Secretary of Housing and Community Development and the founder of Preservation of Affordable Housing.  As I listened to speakers reflect on their incredible legacies, I found myself thinking about the thousands of people whose lives are healthier and happier because of what they and so many others have done over the decades.  The NLIHC report affirms that their legacy lives on in the homes they – and we – helped to create. 

As an advocate, I know that we often rely on dire statistics to generate the political will needed to spur policy change. I also know that we must confront the pessimism and cynicism that says governmental action won’t help and could make things worse.  I hope the NLIHC Report can do both – give us the encouragement and confidence to overcome this negativity, while renewing our sense of urgency that we need to adopt an ambitious housing agenda to help the millions of Americans who remain housing insecure.

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In Memory of Amy Anthony

December 17th, 2018 by Joe Kriesberg

MACDC joins with others in the Affordable Housing community to mourn the passing of Amy Anthony.  Amy was a giant in our field who led the Executive Office of Community Development under Governor Michael Dukakis and subsequently founded and led the Preservation of Affordable Housing.  She was a visionary leader who put in place many of the policies, programs and organizations that make Massachusetts a national leader in affordable housing. She also played a major role in the growth of the CDC movement in Massachusetts by helping to create dozens of CDCs during the 1980s that continue to serve their communities to this day.  Her legacy will last for decades to come.

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2018 Convention: Highlights

October 26th, 2018 by Joe Kriesberg

More than 700 community development leaders from every corner of the state converged on the Hynes Convention Center in Boston on Saturday, October 20 for MACDC’s 2018 Convention.  It was a day of celebration, learning, networking, action and inspiration. This was the largest MACDC Convention so far, with hundreds of community residents, CDC board members, staff members, funders, partners, and allies in attendance.   Thanks to Bank of America and our generous sponsors, the event was free to our members and to the public.

The day was filled with many highlights, including:

  • Gubernatorial Forum:  Both Republican Gubernatorial candidate, Charlie Baker, and Democratic Gubernatorial candidate, Jay Gonzalez, participated in our Candidate Forum, fielding questions about affordable housing, the racial homeownership gap, small business development, social determinants of health, the Community Investment Tax Credit and more.  Jay Gonzalez promised to double the state’s housing capital budget, with $50 million earmarked for affordable homeownership and said he would fight to increase the state match for the Community Preservation Act.  Charlie Baker affirmed his strong support for the Community Investment Tax Credit and said he would sign legislation to increase the state CPA match.  Watch the Forum in its entirety on our website.
  • Book Presentation:  We gave both candidates a copy of the book, The Color of Law, as an appreciation for their participation and to help them learn more about the history of housing discrimination in our country, and its legacy today.  If you have not read the book, you should.  You can also start with this book review written by Joe Kriesberg.  To see how the candidates reacted, watch the video.
  • Awards:  Spencer Buchholtz from Lawrence Community Works received the Ricanne Hadrian Award for his outstanding organizing work in Lawrence, and three CDCs were honored with the first CITC Community Impact award – NewVue Communities, Revitalize CDC, and Asian CDC.  Those CDCs produced wonderful videos that were shown at the convention and can now be viewed on our website.
  • Workshops:  The convention include eight workshops on key topics, including:
    • How to Tell Your Story of Change
    • Assessing YOUR Community's Housing Need and Strategies
    • Cracking the Code: Building Support for Affordable Housing in Suburban and Rural Areas
    • Leveraging Art for Community & Economic Growth
    • Healthy Food Focused Economic Development
    • From Awake to Woke - Starting Race Talk
    • Addressing Fundraising Anxiety: How Board Members and Residents Can Raise Funds
    • We Are the Now and the Future. Youth Empowerment!

We also were inspired by four wonderful community leaders who shared their stories about why they have become active with their CDC and by the “CDC Roll Call,” where every CDC in attendance shared an example of the great work they are planning for 2019.

Of course, perhaps, the best part of the day was the opportunity to be together, to network and talk with colleagues, and to feel the energy of this dynamic movement.  We are truly more powerful when we are united and the 2018 MACDC Convention proved that yet again.

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Leveraging Arts and Cultural Programming to advance Racial Equity

October 3rd, 2018 by Joe Kriesberg

Reflections of a Learning Journey to Seattle by Joe Kriesberg

 

Last week, I had a special opportunity to participate in a Learning Journey to Seattle, Washington to study their efforts to ensure that people of color have full access to arts and cultural opportunities and to leverage the power of human creativity to drive racial equity.  It was an inspiring and educational trip!

The “Journey” was organized by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC) with support from the Barr Foundation and brought 25 civic, government and community leaders to the Pacific Northwest for two action-packed days.  The diverse delegation included the Mayors of Lynn, Salem and Beverly; two state senators; two state representatives; a Boston City Councilor; local officials from suburban and rural communities; and nonprofit leaders from groups like MACDC and MASSCreative.  

Our visit began at the Wing Luke Museum with welcoming remarks from Ken Workman, the great, great, great, great grandson of Chief Seattle.  He reminded us about the people who were here for centuries and whose culture was devastated (but not destroyed) by Europeans. We then heard from city and state leaders about their expansive efforts to ensure that children of color have equal access to a full range of cultural and creative programming throughout their k-12 education, both during the school day and beyond. We learned about an ambitious effort to inventory every cultural space in the city and to create a “dating app” that would allow any “creative” to find space to pursue their craft.  The City and County have innovative funding streams to support these efforts, including a five percent levy on all for-profit entertainment venues (sadly, male professional sports are exempted; a mistake we should not make if we seek to replicate this model in Massachusetts!).  We toured an incredibly ambitious public art project that includes nearly 60 massive murals along a rail corridor south of downtown.  And all of this was on the first day.

On day two, we toured the wonderfully renovated historic Washington Hall where a 17-year-old Jimi Hendrix preformed publicly for the first time and now is home to three community-based organizations that promote the arts.  The Hall is in an historically African American community that has been significantly gentrified, so the programming seeks to affirm and support the remaining African American community and to honor the history of the neighborhood. Seattle is growing even faster than Boston; it is a day-to-day fight to slow displacement, preserve neighborhoods, and retain the historic and cultural assets that make the city special.  Arts and culture are both a potential victim of this process and a tool for fighting back.

Our last visit was with an amazing program called Creative Justice that uses the arts to engage and support court-involved youth.  While their program is having great success with young people, that is not their only mission.  We were told that the goal of Creative Justice is not to change young people, but to change the criminal justice system!

A few lessons really resonated for me.  First, it was clear how much Seattle values the arts for their intrinsic value.  They don’t seek to justify investment in the arts solely because of the jobs, economic impacts, and reduced high school dropout rates, although they certainly achieve those results.  Arts and culture are intrinsic to human experience and everyone should have access to it everywhere.  

It was also hard not to be inspired by the commitment to racial equity. What stood out for me was the fact that they were undeterred by the complexity and uncertainly about what precisely racial equity might mean in different contexts.  One speaker noted that racial equity has never existed in the history of the world – just like a piece of art, or music that has not yet been produced.  He suggested that we view this work as an act of creativity, where we first envision something and then we create it.  Like any creative work, there are no hard definitions, no defined pathways, no absolute right answers, and plenty of trial and error.  We were told to “think big, start small, and go fast” even if we don’t know exactly where we were going.  This is something for me and MACDC to think about as we embark to deepen our own commitment to racial equity.

As if the program itself did not teach me enough about the fight to promote the arts in Seattle, I continued to learn when I was in my Lyft ride going to my sister-in-law’s house (yes, I also had family to visit!).  My driver was a 50+ year old man who plays in three rock bands and drives Lyft to help pay the bills. He had just gone to his first City Council hearing ever to protest the demolition of an historic music hall, which might be replaced with a 44-story condominium development.  Seattle needs more housing desperately, but at what cost? My driver told me that he was a nervous wreck as he waited to testify at a public hearing for the first time in his life.  But he was pleased with himself for speaking up. He’s hopeful the Hall will be saved, but who knows? There are law suits and political battles to come. Either way, he and others are raising their voices and I’m confident that the creative community in Seattle is here to stay!

As I write this essay on my flight home to Boston, I am still thinking about how this work ultimately fits within MACDC’s agenda and what we can contribute to the effort.  How can we leverage the power of the arts to advance our goals for community voice and racial equity? How can arts and culture be part of our efforts to address displacement or promote neighborhood revitalization? I welcome your thoughts as my learning journey continues.

 

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State Legislature Wraps Up 2017/18 Session

August 6th, 2018 by Joe Kriesberg

The Massachusetts State Legislature wrapped up the 2017/18 legislative session on July 31 and in the final flurry of activity, there was some good news for community developers and some disappointing news. On July 27, MACDC sent a letter to legislative leaders requesting action on six items.

    Here is how we fared:
  1. The legislature overrode the Governor's Veto of the so-called Chapter 206 money that provides grants to CDCs and others for home-ownership education and foreclosure prevention.   This action fixes the language that defines the program and provides $2.05 million for the line-item, a $500,000 increase over last year.
  2. The legislature enacted language to exempt bona fide nonprofits from the onerous and unnecessary Mortgage Loan Originator (MLO) licensing requirements.  This was an issue of great concern to many MACDC members that operate home-ownership programs such as down-payment assistance and lead paint abatement loans.  TO make this happen, we worked closely with our impacted members, CHAPA, Habitat for Humanity, the Division of Banks and the Mass. Mortgage Bankers Association.
  3. The legislature authorized $1.25 million in capital funds for CDFIs that lend to small businesses.  We had hoped to secure $5 million, but this will still provide important capital to many of our members.
  4. The Governor's Housing Choice bill did not pass.  The House and Senate could not agree on a path forward regarding zoning and housing production.  The House wanted to pass the Governor’s bill. The Senate wanted to add some zoning reforms for which we had advocated.  They could not reach an agreement.  This is very disappointing as so many people worked so hard over the past two years to enact meaningful housing production and zoning reform.
  5. Legislation to enable the creation of Community Benefit Districts also did not pass.  MACDC has worked with the Massachusetts Smart Growth Alliance for four years to get this bill enacted so this too was disappointing.  
  6. The Legislature did not act on the Governor's Supplemental Budget request which included $10 million in CPA matching funds.  That could still be done in informal session later this year.

The Legislature also adopted strong legislation to regulate and tax Short Term Rentals, like Airbnb.  We are urging the Governor to sign this into law. The legislature also created an economic mobility commission that will look at best practices for helping affordable housing residents gain economic stability.

Considering that MACDC had already won our three top policy priorities for the year we are very pleased with what has been accomplished over the past two years (the Community Investment Tax Credit legislation, the Affordable Housing Bond Bill and restored funding for the Small Business Technical Assistance program).

MACDC is thankful to our members for the calls, emails, and visits that they made to advocate for this agenda.  We are grateful to have so many amazing partners like CHAPA, the Mass. Smart Growth Alliance, and the Metropolitan Area Planning Council with whom we work closely.  And, of course, we have many friends in the House and Senate – far too many to list here – that do the hard work inside the building to turn good ideas into law.

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Saturday, October 20 is going to be the best day of the year!

July 12th, 2018 by Joe Kriesberg
 
What’s your favorite day of the year? Your birthday? Christmas? Thanksgiving? 
 
For me, this year, it will be Saturday, October 20
 
No, it is not my birthday (which is October 7th – thanks for asking).  October 20 is the date of the MACDC Convention - by far my favorite event of the year. 
 
Since 2002, MACDC has hosted six Conventions, with the last one held in 2014.  The Convention is unlike any other event in the community development field – it is a conference, a celebration, and a political action all rolled into one exciting, fun, inspiring day.  Everyone and anyone associated with community development and community building is going to want to be there.  We expect 700, or more people from across the state. 
 
MACDC is committed to removing any and every obstacle to your participation.  Thanks to our donors and sponsors, THE CONVENTION IS FREE.  We provide free breakfast and lunch, free child care, transportation assistance, language interpretation, and whatever else is needed, so we can welcome everyone in our movement. 
 
The MACDC Convention is special because the event is designed for and attracts hundreds of CDC board members, residents, community leaders, youth leaders, and others who are a part of the community development field.  Community development professionals will be there too because this is the one event where everyone in the field – volunteers, paid staff, funders, investors, allies, friends, teachers, students – comes together.  
 
We are still finalizing the agenda, but we already know it is going to be fun, educational, inspiring, and impactful.  Some of the highlights include: 
  • Workshops on key community development priorities such as affordable housing, economic development, racial equity, community health, and community organizing; 
  • Awards to CDCs that have leveraged the Community Investment Tax Credit program to launch, or expand a program that is making a difference in the lives of people and communities;
  • Music and poetry that express our core values and inspire us to work for an inclusive and equitable society; 
  • The “CDC Roll Call,” where every CDC in attendance shares an exciting achievement from the past year, thereby demonstrating the diversity and scale of our collective impact; 
  • Testimonials from CDC community leaders that will remind us why we do this work; and 
  • Networking opportunities throughout the day that enable you to meet your colleagues from across the state. 
Of course, MACDC is not going to bring 700 people together without using the opportunity to help shape the future of community development policy.  We have invited all the major party candidates for Governor to join us on October 20th to field our questions about their policy agenda.   
 
Deval Patrick came to our conventions in 2006 and 2010; made specific and meaningful commitments to our members; and he kept those commitments.  Charlie Baker came in 2014 and did the same, including a commitment to fund small business development and support the Community Investment Tax Credit.  I am 100% certain the Community Investment Tax Credit would not exist – and would not have been recently increased -  without the MACDC Convention.  When these candidates see hundreds of diverse and united community leaders from every corner of the state, learn about the tangible ways we are improving the Commonwealth, are asked specific questions about important policy issues, they come to understand that we are a movement to be taken seriously.   
 
Join us! I’m confident you’ll be glad you came and it may turn out to be your favorite day of 2018 too! 

Governor Baker speaks at MACDC's 2014 Convention

Governor Patrick speaks at MACDC's 2010 Convention

Governor Patrick speaks at MACDC's 2006 Convention

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MACDC Urges Boston City Council to Adopt Strong Short Term Rental Ordinance

May 30th, 2018 by Joe Kriesberg

The Massachusetts Association of Community Development Corporations which represents 20 CDCs in the City of Boston calls on the Boston City Council to support strong regulations for the short-term rental industry.  We believe the compromise ordinance put forth by Mayor Marty Walsh and several members of the Council is a solid proposal that balances the need to protect our rental housing stock and the desire of local homeowners to earn extra money.  We urge the Council to approve this proposal when it comes before the City Council.

Everyone knows that Boston is in the middle of a housing crisis.  Rents and home prices have been increasing for several years and thousands of Bostonians can no longer afford to live here.  MACDC and its members are working closely with residents, the City, and other stakeholders to help mitigate this housing crisis by producing as much affordable housing as we possibly can.  The City has adopted numerous strategies for expanding our housing supply, preserving existing affordable homes, acquiring more apartments that can be protected for the long term, strengthening tenant protections, and of course, building new affordable apartments and homes.  These efforts are undermined when private developers and investors convert rental housing into de facto hotels.

We believe that Mayor Walsh's proposal strikes the right balance.  It would slow displacement of renters while enabling homeowners to earn extra cash.  We urge the Council to support this common-sense proposal.

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MACDC Board Meets with Gov. Charlie Baker

April 30th, 2018 by Joe Kriesberg

For the fourth year in a row, MACDC's Board of Directors met with Governor Charlie Baker as part of our annual Lobby Day.  MACDC Board Chair, Vanessa Calderon Rosado thanked the Governor for his support of key MACDC priorities including the Housing Bond Bill, the Community Investment Tax Credit and the Small Business Technical Assistance program.  A number of board members then shared some of the innovative work they are doing locally to support small businesses, help working families buy their first home, and partner with hospitals to advance health equity initiatives. The Board also pressed the Governor to support an increase in state matching funds for the Community Preservation Act and to allocate a portion of the forthcoming gaming industry tax revenue to support small businesses from under-invested communities.

"Our conversation with the Governor was substantive and productive," said MACDC President Joseph Kriesberg.  "We deeply appreciate the Governor's keen interest in our work and his willingness to engage in a detailed conversation about how we can work together toward shared goals."

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Why The Color of Law is a Must Read for Community Developers

April 11th, 2018 by Joe Kriesberg

Today, April 11, marks the 50th anniversary of the enactment of the Federal Fair Housing Act, and to mark the occasion I spent the weekend reading The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein.  To be honest, when the book was first released I was unsure whether I would read it, thinking arrogantly that “I know that story already.”  After all, I’ve been working in community development for 25 years and have taught graduate level courses in community development and affordable housing. After I missed seeing Mr. Rothstein speak at a recent event with Massachusetts Community Banking Council, I figured I should reconsider.   I’m glad I did.  I learned a tremendous amount pouring through chapter after chapter this weekend.  To put it simply:  I consider this book to be required reading for any serious community developer, affordable housing advocate, or frankly for anyone interested in America’s history . . . and America’s future.

The book is framed as a rebuttal to an opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts in 2007 in which he rejected school desegregation programs in Louisville and Seattle by arguing that when residential segregation “is a product not of state action, but of private choices, it does not have constitutional implications.”  Rothstein proceeds to document, in brutal detail, that segregation in America is indeed the result of governmental action and this “de jure segregation” violated our Constitution, and therefore, requires a constitutional remedy.

The book effectively combines stories about particular families and places, data, and a systemic analysis of the multiple and reinforcing ways that government – federal, state and local – systematically segregated our country.   Some of the laws, policies and practices that were deployed include:

  • Zoning that explicitly required blacks and whites to live in different neighborhoods, followed by various forms of exclusionary zoning that prevented rental housing and low-income housing from being developed in many communities;
  • Financing programs that encouraged developers to build segregated developments and literally prevented developers from building integrated housing developments, even when developers wanted to do so;
  • Redlining practices that ensured government-subsidized mortgages were only offered to white families;
  • Government enforcement of racial covenants that prevented homes from being sold to African Americans;
  • Demolition of African American neighborhoods that forced residents to relocate to other areas;
  • Highways strategically located to destroy black neighborhoods, to provide barriers between blacks and whites, and to enable whites to move to the suburbs;
  • A failure to arrest perpetrators who used violence to scare and intimidate African Americans who moved into white neighborhoods;
  • Relocating schools to force black (and white) families to move to new neighborhoods, so their children could attend public school;
  • Systematically undermining economic opportunities for African Americans to prevent them from gaining the economic wherewithal to compete with whites in the housing market; and
  • On and on and on it goes.

The impact of these policies and programs, many of which were enacted by liberal elected officials,  was staggering.  Indeed, there were many integrated communities across America in the early 20th century but these communities were systematically destroyed.  Many developers sought to build integrated communities only to be denied by federal, state and local policies.  Middle class black families who were well on their way toward the American Dream had their long term economic prospects (and those of their children and grand-children) artificially short circuited because they were unable to buy a home and build equity.  And, yes, there were white families who wanted to live in integrated communities but were blocked by the government from doing so.  Significantly, these policies were in full force from 1945 to 1968 when our country went through a period of massive housing development.  By the time the laws began to change, it was too late: modern America had been built and residential segregation was institutionalized.

As a community developer and an advocate of affordable housing, the book forces some difficult questions.  Are we unintentionally perpetuating segregation today? Does affordable housing policy focus too much on the provision of shelter for the poor and not enough on the need to promote integration?  How does this history challenge our views about gentrification or the growing suburbanization of poverty?  Given the limited funding for subsidized housing, how can we better leverage the market to drive integration? What is the proper remedy for racially concentrated areas of poverty?  I still have more questions than answers.

Perhaps because I have so many questions, I was a bit disappointed in the section on possible remedies.  He readily acknowledges that some of his suggestions are politically impossible under almost any scenario.  Other ideas that he offers are the same ones that we already frequently hear – such as locating more affordable housing in middle class neighborhoods and allowing Section 8 tenants to rent more expensive housing – remedies that are small scale at best and would do nothing to improve the quality of life for millions of African Americans and others that would inevitably remain in poor communities.  The section fails to adequately deal with the many complexities we face in undoing nearly a century of de jure racial segregation.  He perpetuates the stereotype that low-income communities of color lack assets and does not fully acknowledge that many people of color are seeking to preserve their communities as well as their cultural and historic significance.  He also does not adequately discuss, in my view, the complexities associated with integration in a society that is no longer just black and white, but is growing more and more diverse.

Rothstein does offer one recommendation with which I whole-heartedly agree.  He argues that we need to revamp our high school history curriculum and textbooks to make sure the history of de jure segregation is taught to all Americans. He points out two major high school textbooks that barely mention the subject – one book has just a single sentence on the subject out of 1,000 pages!  Rothstein makes a compelling argument that we can’t even begin to address this issue effectively until we gain a shared understanding that residential segregation in America is the result of explicit, sustained, pervasive, creative, insidious governmental action.  The Color of Law makes a major contribution to that effort and should be read not only by students, but also by jurists, policymakers, advocates, citizens . . . all of us. 

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