It was nearing the end of the night and the packed house at Davis Community Church of more than 200 people remained for the most part, as Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law – a book on the manner in which the American government deliberately imposed racial segregation on housing – returned to the podium to take an audience question.
One person asked, “How can we maintain that small town feel and still deal with our housing issues?”
Throughout the evening, in the 40 minutes of his main presentation hosted by the League of Women Voters, the thesis of Richard Rothstein is that the Civil Rights movement in the US addressed discrimination and segregation in schools, in voting, in accommodations, and for the most part “abolished segregation in buses and lunch counters and all kinds of accommodations, transportation and employment.
“Yet at the end of the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement really folded up its tent and went home,” he said. “(It) left untouched the biggest segregation of all which is that every metropolitan area is residentially segregated.” He asked how can this be when we have come to understand that segregation and discrimination are morally wrong, and yet, “everywhere we look clearly defined boundaries by race.
“How can it be that we left this untouched?” he asked. “We’ve adopted a rationalization to eexcuse ourselves from addressing the most serious segregation of all.” And he included in that critique all of us – liberal and conservative and even himself.
We rationalize that by arguing that the previous segregation was “done by government,” but residential segregation is “something entirely different” we tell ourselves. “Residential segregation, we tell ourselves, that just happened by accident,” he said. “It happened because bigoted white home owners wouldn’t sell homes to African Americans in white neighborhoods.”
He said, “We tell ourselves that what happened by accident, can only unhappen by accident. It’s not a civil rights violation, because it wasn’t done by government so we can’t do anything about it. We give a name to it… we say it all the time, it’s de facto segregation, segregation that just happened in fact not law.”
Throughout his presentation, however, he really challenged that thinking.
He noted the story about a family buying a second home and then attempting to sell it to an African-American family. When the family moved in, an angry mob surrounded the home protected by the police, they threw rocks through the windows and the police either couldn’t or wouldn’t stop it.
The case he illustrated happened in Kentucky and, after the riot, the state arrested and convicted the family of sedition, for selling a white home to a black family.
“This doesn’t sound to me much like de facto segregation,” he said. He noted that there are thousands of such cases of mob violence that have been documented, protected by the police, and designed to drive blacks out of homes in white neighborhoods. “All of these are civil rights violations that have never been remedied.”
He noted that he found many state and local policies which “are racially explicit that were designed to create, sustain, reinforce, perpetuate racial segregation in every metropolitan area in this country and without those policies we would not have the racial landscape that we have to today.”
He said of course there was private bigotry by private actors, but those “private actors could not have created the racial segregation we know without government subsidy.”
Richard Rothstein gave the example of public housing, which he noted contrary to common belief was not created for poor people. At the time it was created during the depression, we had 25 percent unemployment, “public housing was for the 75 percent who were employed, who had good jobs.
“Public housing was the most desirable housing available for middle class and working families when it was first created during the new deal,” he said. “Most of the projects were for whites.”
Many of the urban areas at this time were integrated. He said we had “a lot of integration in mid-20th century America, much more than we had today.” But he explained that the public works administration frequently segregated them with separate projects for blacks and whites.
It was during this time that they started demolishing integrated housing and built housing for whites only, displacing African Americans.
Richard Rothstein further noted that it was affordable housing that created segregation. They put low income housing in “low income segregated neighborhoods,” he said, noting that they don’t call it that, but that’s what they are – mostly low income segregated neighborhoods.
“That’s because it’s easier to build it there,” he explained. “Affordable housing programs today reinforce segregation creating those same consequences.”
When they first started these programs, they discovered that most of the white projects “developed large numbers of vacancies” while the black projects “had long waiting lists.”
And what happened there is that they opened up the housing projects to African Americans and, pretty soon, these projects became predominantly African American. He explained how ultimately with the movement of jobs out of the cities and the decaying conditions inside the cities, “we got the kind of urban slums we associate with public housing.”
Following the presentation by Richard Rothstein, there was a locally based discussion on housing by three local people – Ash Feeney, the Assistant City Manager and Community Development Director, David Thompson who develops cooperative low-income housing, and Alyssa Meyer, legal counsel for Northern California Legal Aid.
Ash Feeney noted that the top issue in polling that took place last spring for the time was affordable housing. He discussed the reason that the price of housing has gone up – “It has gotten a lot more expensive to produce, harder to produce from a process stand point, and the costs have gone up.”
He noted that the city of Davis had great intentions with growth policies, but that led to untended consequences, namely increased housing costs and demographic shift.
“There’s a high barrier to entry (into the housing market) when you’re seeing the prices that we’re seeing today,” he said.
A huge issue is one of overpayment. He explained “that means when you’re paying over 30 percent or more of your household income towards housing costs.”
In the state of the city report, “it notes that 61 percent of renters are overpaying for their household.”
He noted that the median rent is over $1600 per month with a median income of about $63,000, that’s 31% of their income. So, for a median income, a median apartment is considered an overpayment.
David Thompson discussed, among other things, the history of cooperatives and he said that the association of cooperatives were the only ones willing to supply racially integrated cooperatives in the 1930s and 1940s – especially following the war.
However, despite such efforts, “none of them were complete as cooperatives. All of them were built.” He said, “FHA at that time in the late 1940s, would not finance any cooperative that did not include a racial covenant in its papers.”
They all went out of business “trying to do the good thing.” They were built, “but not one black person lived in those five (cooperatives).”
He noted that it was not until 1962 that President Kennedy prevented the FHA from discriminatory practices.
The main thrust of his comments were about the need for housing for moderate income people living in our town.
“If we want moderate income people to live in our town, this is one of the things we need to pay attention to,” he said. He noted that if you want to live in a market rate apartment in 2020 you will pay about $2200 in rent. “If you wanted to live in Dos Pinos, in the same three bedroom unit apartment on that same day in 2020, you would pay $1248, a $952 difference.”
He said that amounts to cash in hand for a moderate income person. He noted that most of the rents are above what people should be paying – and as a result there are a lot of people who live and work in Davis who can never save enough to purchase a house.
“They can never save a damn dime because they’re paying so much in rent,” he said. But living in Dos Pinos you have a lot more savings than at a market rate. Unfortunately, he said, there are only 60 units at Dos Pinos versus 13,000 or so market rate apartments. He argued we need to look at workforce cooperative housing as a way to solve this problem.
Finally Alyssa Meyer talked about some of her work at Northern California Legal Aid.
She noted that the vacancy rate in Davis continues to be less than one percent. Woodland has now joined Davis with a similar vacancy rate and West Sacramento “is not far behind.”
She said, “The housing crisis” has impacted people and they have more cases than ever, without any more staff to serve them.
The people most impacted are women and people of color.
“It is hard to be a legal aid attorney when there is no supply of housing,” she said. “There is no soft landing anymore as there is no place for people to go” if they are kicked out of housing.
One other thing she noted was a Catch-22. A lot of people are ineligible for getting housing because they have a criminal record. For some that criminal record is no more than sleeping outside. So they can’t get housing and thus are forced to sleep outside, but because they are forced to sleep outside, they can’t get housing.
—David M. Greenwald reporting