The Racist Housing Policies That Helped Fuel The Anger In Ferguson

Protesters in Ferguson, Missouri raise their hands in the middle of the street after the police shooting death of Michael Brown CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JEFF ROBERSON
Protesters in Ferguson, Missouri raise their hands in the middle of the street after the police shooting death of Michael Brown CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JEFF ROBERSON

Ferguson, MO, which erupted in chaos this week after police shot an unarmed teenager, has seen extensive racial segregation over the last century. The long history of discriminatory policies has bred simmering tensions about race that have burst forward after the death of Mike Brown.

Ferguson is a prime, and egregious, example of discriminatory housing policies and segregation. Out of 50 metro areas across the country, the St. Louis area where Ferguson is located is the ninth most segregated between whites and blacks.

That fact is a result of both white flight and public policy working in tandem. St. Louis began redlining with a ballot measure in 1916, which won by a substantial majority, creating an ordinance that designated some areas as “Negro blocks.” While it was struck down a year later when a similar ordinance in another area was ruled against by the Supreme Court, realtors were undeterred.

In 1923, the St. Louis Real Estate Exchange adopted a referendum creating “unrestricted zones” in the city’s historically black neighborhoods where members were allowed to sell to black people — but outside of them, they could lose their licenses if they sold a property to a black family. As Professor Colin Gordon of the University of Iowa writes in his website that thoroughly documents these policies and the city’s changing demographics, “Both the City’s Real Estate Exchange and the Missouri Real Estate Commission routinely and openly interpreted sales to blacks in white areas as a form of professional misconduct.” In 1941, the zones were combined into one restricted district, and then the St. Louis exchange began using covenants that restricted the use and resale of properties to black people. “By the 1940s, almost 380 covenants covered large and strategic swaths of the City’s residential property base,” Gordon writes.


The realtors didn’t act alone, however. The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, a federal mortgage insurance program created as part of the New Deal in the 30s, assumed black neighborhoods lost value and used racial makeup as a key factor in rating the security of neighborhoods. In St. Louis, “A” security ratings were common in white suburban neighborhoods but rare in urban black ones. By the 1940s, A-rated zones had higher rates of home ownership and house values, while D zones, the lowest grade, had more renters and lower values, while also making up over 75 percent of the predominantly black St. Louis areas.

What happened in St. Louis happened in cities across the country. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has written about extensively, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), created in 1934 to insure private mortgages, used similar ratings, marking black neighborhoods with Ds and red coloring — hence the term redlining — and usually making those mortgages ineligible for its backing. That meant black residents missed out on the lower interest rates and down payments required for mortgages with FHA backing. Most black families were shut out of the legitimate mortgage market, their home values decreased, and even those who could afford to move were trapped in inner city communities by restrictive covenants.

The racial segregation that these policies caused lives with us today. Whites fled the city for the suburbs in St. Louis, but blacks couldn’t follow, kept out by restrictions. “Between 1950 and 1970, close to 60 percent of the white population fled the City,” Gordon writes. The black population in the city increased slightly in the same time. Ferguson, an inner suburb, was also abandoned by white residents as they left even those areas after 1970.

These urban and inner suburban areas have also lost their populations generally. The city’s population fell 8 percent between 2000 and 2010, as did the nearby suburban areas, while the outer suburbs grew by 27 percent. In this same time period, Ferguson in particular has seen an increase in segregation: today, about two-thirds of its residents are black, up from just over half in 2000, while white residents have declined from 44 percent to just under 30 percent of the population. In St. Louis County as a whole, however, the population is nearly three-quarters white and just a quarter black.

Across the country, while segregation peaked in the 1960s and 70s, it is still very much around today. The average city-dwelling white person lives in a neighborhood that is 75 percent white and just 8 percent black. The average black person lives in one that is 45 percent black and 35 percent white.


Racial housing segregation hasn’t just affected community makeups, but their economics. Given that blacks have been shut out of buying homes, a huge source of wealth, and discriminatory practices depressed the values of those who did manage to buy houses, it’s no surprise that there continues to be a huge racial wealth gap. The average black household has $75,040 in wealth stored in its home, while the average white one has $217,150. Overall, the gap in wealth between white households and black ones was $84,960 in 2011. A similar gap is apparent in Ferguson, where the median household income is about $37,500 but in St. Louis County as a whole it’s $58,500.

On top of this, the police forces that patrol majority black neighborhoods often don’t look like them. Ferguson, which is 67 percent black, is policed by a force that is under 6 percent black. But police forces across the country are 75 percent white on average, and even the biggest cities have police forces that are more than half white.

And there’s a big gap in how urban and suburban residents view their police forces. Half of urban residents — those who are also more likely to be black thanks to restrictive housing policies — say blacks are treated less fairly than whites in dealing with the police, while suburban residents are less likely to feel that way. There is also a huge racial disparity, with 70 percent of black people agreeing with this sentiment but just 37 percent of whites doing the same.

All of these factors — housing policy, wealth gaps, and racial tensions between majority black residents and the white people who hold power over them — are part of what is fueling the rage and hurt on display in the protests in Ferguson’s streets. But it’s also worth remembering where it came from — and that these practices occurred across the country and have left similar outcomes in their wake.