Fair House

Fifty years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, access to opportunity is still widely segregated in communities across the United States, including Tucson


On the east side of Tucson, Kate and her husband live in a home they designed themselves and harvest rainwater for their vegetable garden. When she retired from a career in social services, Kate started working as a housing tester for the Southwest Fair Housing Council, a nonprofit fair housing agency that serves the state of Arizona. "I wanted to do something fun," she says.

Housing testers are basically secret shoppers for the housing and lending industry. Since the 1970s, the evidence gathered by housing testers has been admissible in court as a way to corroborate and prove claims of housing discrimination. Before Kate goes out on an assignment, a coordinator at the council gives her a persona—where she lives, her employment, if she's married or single, with kids or without. Then Kate visits an apartment building, meets with a mortgage broker, or tours a new housing development, covertly documenting what she finds—what specials she was given, how she was treated, what information and products were offered or withheld. She doesn't know if her experience will be compared to another housing tester—"I don't know if I'm being compared to a male, or a person of a different ethnicity," she says. "So I can report objectively what I find."

Recently, Kate, who is black, was sent to test a new subdivision. A tour of a subdivision typically includes visits to model homes at various price points, starting with a base model. The home was staged, as most are. As she followed the agent through the base model, "I noticed that all the pictures were of brown people or black people," she says. They continued to the next house, an upgraded model. "It was also staged and all of the photos in that house were of Anglo families." Then they toured the final home, the most expensive of the three. "Again I noticed all the photos were of Anglo families."

Kate doubted herself—that she'd really noticed a pattern—so, like any homebuyer, she asked to walk through the three homes again. "Sure enough, every photo in the starter home was of brown and black people. Every photo in the upgraded and final home was of Anglo people," she says. "Even though the photos were all positive, it still subliminally tells you that you're being targeted for this area."

Erica Hardwick, the director of enforcement at the Southwest Fair Housing Council, or SWFHC, says, "People know they shouldn't be discriminated against. They just don't always recognize it in the context of housing."

Today, 50 years after the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, where you live largely determines how your life unfolds. Where you live is correlated with nearly every major indicator of health and well-being, from the quality of education you receive to the kind of job you get to the healthcare your family can access. Where you live determines what you eat, how far you commute, and how much you pay for government services. And yet access to housing—which is to say, access to opportunity—remains widely segregated and unequal in communities across the United States, including Tucson.

Housing discrimination comes in many forms, from the racial profiling of prospective tenants or homebuyers, to landlords refusing to accommodate the needs of residents with disabilities. Housing discrimination can be acute—a one-time incident—or chronic, as it was for the first half of the 20th century, when racial segregation was the official policy of the United States government.

"The fact that the development patterns of where people live today are based on racist policies is crucial to understand, especially if we want to have cities where everyone has equal access to opportunity," says Jay Young, the executive director of the SWFHC. "Where people have access to good jobs, quality education, services—all of that at its base is really housing."

On Sept. 29, 1965,
100 demonstrators held picket signs outside the University of Arizona's Main Gate. "U of A Prolongs Jim Crow Housing" read one sign. Another read, "One List or No List." Thousands of students gathered to watch as the UA campus police blocked the protesters from entering campus.

click to enlarge Protests and march in favor of civil rights and fair housing - COURTESY
Protests and march in favor of civil rights and fair housing

The demonstrators, many from the Tucson chapter of the NAACP, had gathered to protest the UA's off-campus housing listing policy. Earlier that year, when a physics professor named Alexander Gardner was invited to do research on campus, he consulted the UA's off-campus housing list and was unable to find a landlord willing to rent to an African American family. "There were a dozen homes available on the list at that time but none for Negroes," said Robert Horn, the chapter president, whom Gardener had contacted for help.

Horn and his colleagues had spent several years calling for the UA to change its listing policy for off-campus housing, charging that by allowing listings from landlords who refused to rent to African-American tenants, the institution was condoning racial discrimination. Shortly after the protest on the UA Mall, the Tucson chapter filed an official complaint about the UA's off-campus housing listing policy with the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. UA president Richard Harvill defended the University's position to the Tucson Citizen: "The real question clearly is that of whether this university should be a party to the use of pressure to force home owners to surrender their traditional and recognized rights in determining whom they have in their homes."

In February of 1966, before the federal investigation had concluded, the UA abandoned its off-campus housing list altogether, claiming that few students used the service anyway. While Horn and others at the NAACP supported the decision, Prior Pray, the chairman of the Tucson Commission on Human Relations, expressed frustration that the university hadn't even attempted to fix the list. "I knew that there was a cancer situation, but I thought it could be cured without amputation," he said.

Three years earlier, Pray had written a letter to President John F. Kennedy urging him "to issue immediately an executive order banning discrimination on the basis of race, religion, color, or national origin in public-assisted housing ... In Tucson, Arizona, many Americans are being denied adequate housing due to discrimination based on race and national origin. There is evidence that the conditions prevalent in Tucson are also operative in many other cities throughout the nation."

Indeed, housing discrimination was widespread across the United States. In 1967, after race riots erupted across the country and nearly a hundred people, many of them black, were killed, President Lyndon Johnson appointed an 11-member commission, known as the Kerner Commission, to investigate what had happened and how to prevent it from happening again. More than 2 million Americans bought copies of the published report, which remains one of the most scathing indictments of racial inequality in the United States. "What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto," the commission wrote. "White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it." The report focused on housing segregation as a cause for the riots and concluded with a warning: "Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal."

click to enlarge President Johnson signing Fair Housing Act into law. - COURTESY
President Johnson signing Fair Housing Act into law.

Two months after the report was published, on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Seven days later, Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which included Title VIII, known as the Fair Housing Act, prohibiting "discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of dwellings based on race, color, religion, or national origin."

The Fair Housing Act—which was amended to include sex, disability, and familial status as protected classes—contains two parts. The first explicitly prohibits individual acts of discrimination against a protected class. "If you go into an apartment complex and they say, 'We don't rent to people who have children,' that's illegal and it's clear," says Young, of the SWFHC.

But the second part of the Fair Housing Act addresses the larger systemic issues that impact housing decisions on a community level. Young says the law obligates cities and counties to "affirmatively further fair housing. That means to reduce segregated housing patterns and create integrated neighborhoods of opportunity."

In 2015, the Obama administration made this second obligation more explicit with the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) rule, which requires entities receiving federal housing funding to document barriers to integration and prioritize policies that promote equal access to opportunity. By the time the AFFH rule was released, the Southwest Fair Housing Council had already begun its own project to map access to opportunity in Tucson. "If you don't have the baseline information showing where segregated housing patterns exist, it's hard to do anything about them," says Young.

click to enlarge COURTESY SWFHC
Courtesy SWFHC

The SWFHC gathered publicly available data within five categories—education, housing, economy, transportation, and health and environment—and mapped how each unfolds across Tucson. Combined, the five metrics created an overall opportunity map, which shows where opportunity does—and does not—exist in Tucson.

The story told by the opportunity map is not surprising. The neighborhoods north of River Road are saturated in blue—high opportunity—while those south of 22nd Street are beige to red—medium to low opportunity. Throughout central Tucson, opportunity is checkered, stacked like Tetris pieces. "The thing about Tucson is that you have these random pockets of poverty," says Iris Patten, who founded the Geospatial Collaborative. "These pockets of poverty aren't benefiting in the way that they could from being surrounded by these higher income levels."

By overlaying the overall opportunity map with demographic data like the number of people with disabilities, people who receive SNAP benefits, or percent Hispanic population, the maps start to tell a story about who has access to opportunity, and who does not. "What the maps show is that if you are Hispanic in Tucson you are much more likely to live in a low opportunity area. If you are white, you are much more likely to live in a high opportunity area," says Young. "There's a pretty clear separation of opportunity."

What the maps also show is that access to opportunity is complicated—that it is layered. A food desert, for example, refers to a geographically isolated area where residents don't have easy access to healthy, affordable food. But by combining metrics like transportation and income, the maps show that access to healthy food does not necessarily increase by building more grocery stores in economically stressed neighborhoods. Rather, access to healthy food increases alongside access to opportunity generally—access to affordable housing, for example, so that rent doesn't eat up a family's grocery budget, or access to a job that pays enough for an individual to afford both groceries and a car payment.

Invest in a neighborhood, and opportunity follows. Divest, and opportunity departs.

In 1936, the Mortgage Rehabilitation Division of the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) sent an appraiser to assess the real estate market in Phoenix—at the time, a city of 110,000 with an economy based in agriculture and tourism. The HOLC was established in 1933 to stabilize the housing market, which had been hit by a wave of foreclosures during the Great Depression. In addition to creating the 30-year fixed-rate mortgage, the HOLC started issuing federally insured mortgage loans. To assess the riskiness of lending in certain neighborhoods, the HOLC sent appraisers to 200 cities across the United States.

In Phoenix, the HOLC appraiser toured neighborhoods, noting the age of houses, occupancy, prices, and other generally accepted indicators of risk. But the appraiser also considered racial and ethnic makeup of neighborhoods—and downgraded those with higher concentrations of black and Hispanic people. In the last section of the 80-page report, a realty map colors the city in blocks of green, blue, yellow, and red. These colors correspond to risk and value, with green representing the lowest risk and highest value neighborhoods in 1936.

In A-2, a small green square between Central and North Seventh Street, north of McDowell and south of Oak, is "the oldest of the best residential sections in Phoenix ... Within this area are some large and high-priced homes, some ranging in age between 25 years and 30 years. Prominent business and professional people live in this area," the report states. Head south, to a strip south of Roosevelt and north of Van Buren, and you'll find C-2 and C-3, both shaded yellow. "Although this area has reached its peak as to values and is declining as a choice residential selection, it nevertheless has many advantages, such as school facilities and proximity to the business district ... This area is occupied by a modest working class of people." Head south farther still—past Van Buren nearly to Buckeye—and the red-lined sections begin: "This section, adjoining the railroad station and yards, is a semi-industrial section, with very poor houses. Negroes, Mexicans, and different classes of foreigners are rapidly occupying this area." In D-5, you'll find a wide area "occupied by low salaried working people, but the district has suffered no encroachment by Negroes, Mexicans, etc." In D-6, a neighborhood that today edges Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, you'd find a "Negro section [with] some very good homes, considering their occupancy by colored people. Other houses in the area are cheap. There is within this area a mixed occupancy, including Mexicans, foreigners, etc."

Across the country, HOLC reports had direct consequences for residents, especially those living in redlined neighborhoods. They were unable to access credit and federally backed mortgages and were thus excluded from homeownership. This approach by the HOLC precipitated the enactment of similar policies by other agencies—the Federal Housing Administration, for instance, which gave 98 percent of its loans between 1934 and 1962 to white borrowers.

In 2017, when economists analyzed data from HOLC maps from nearly 150 cities, they found that the maps not only captured contemporary racial segregation and residential patterns at the time they were drawn, but over time, they also caused changes in lending practices and access to credit, contributing to the disinvestment of some neighborhoods. As recently as 2010, differences in racial segregation, homeownership rates, home values, and credit scores still appeared according to the HOLC boundaries.

In large part because of the legacy of federal housing policy and private lending practices, today in the United States, most white families own their homes—73 percent—while a majority of black and Latino families do not (47 percent of Latinos and 45 percent of blacks were homeowners in 2011). The result of this disparity, over generations, is a huge racial wealth gap. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the median white household had a net worth of $111,146, compared to $7,113 for the median black household and $8,348 for the median Latino household. "If black and Hispanic families owned homes at rates similar to whites, the racial wealth gap would be reduced by almost a third," writes author and sociology professor Matthew Desmond in The New York Times Magazine.

In other words, if you want to address racial inequality, housing is a good place to start.

In 1936, Tucson was too small to warrant an appraisal by the HOLC, but it's described in the Phoenix report as a "growing, thriving city of about 38,000 in population." The presidio of Tucson had been founded in 1775 by Spanish settlers migrating north from central Mexico and remained a small farming village until the railroad arrived in 1880. But despite the longstanding Hispanic presence in Tucson, as the city's population grew—from 7,000 people in 1900 to 212,000 by 1960—so too did racism and, with it, racial segregation.

click to enlarge Sam Hughes neighborhood has a high opportunity score. - COURTESY SAMHUGHES.ORG
Courtesy samhughes.org
Sam Hughes neighborhood has a high opportunity score.

Today, head east from the University of Arizona into the Sam Hughes neighborhood and you'll see families walking along shady, tree-lined streets to the nearby Himmel Park and library. Impeccably restored historic homes cluster closely together, punctuated by stands of citrus and prickly pear. The median home value in Sam Hughes—which has an overall opportunity score of 106—is $296,530, compared to a median home value of $78,615 in the Sunnyside neighborhood—opportunity score 76—only six miles away, beginning near the corner of Irvington and South 12th Avenue. In Sunnyside, sidewalks are sparse, as is shade. Pickup trucks are parked along the street and in driveways, next to chain link fences and cinder block walls. In Sunnyside, 22 percent of people are unemployed, versus 6 percent in Sam Hughes.

Purchase a home in Sam Hughes or Sunnyside and you might expect to find a list of "restrictive covenants" included in the home's deed. These restrictions, commitments between homeowners within a neighborhood, might include the colors of paint acceptable for a home's exterior or the maintenance of vegetation on property lines. But until well into the 1950s, a common restriction in the list of obligations on property deeds was the commitment to never sell or rent to an African-American or "nonwhite" person or family.

At University Manor, a development built in 1922 in Sam Hughes, the deed included this restriction: "No part of said property shall be sold, conveyed, rented, or leased, in whole or in part, to any person of African or Asiatic descent or by any person not of the white or Caucasian race, except such as employed thereon as domestic servants by the owner or tenant in any lot in said property." In the Mitman neighborhood in midtown Tucson, a house deed written in 1947 contained similar language, prohibiting the property to "be sold, conveyed to, or rented, leased or occupied by persons not of the White or Caucasian race."

Although the language in most restrictive covenants targeted African-Americans, these restrictions also impacted Hispanic families. "According to the 1960 census, the Spanish-speaking people rent more than the Anglos, they get less for their money, and the houses they live in are more often than not deteriorating, dilapidated, and overcrowded," reported William Fowler at the National Conference on Poverty in the Southwest that convened in Tucson in 1965. "A number of factors account for this phenomenon of ghetto-living, not the least of which is restrictive covenants in most areas and direct and indirect practices of discrimination."

In Tucson and Phoenix, segregation was established and perpetuated through informal practices that Jeanne Powers, a professor at Arizona State University, calls "Juan Crow practices," a reference to the system of racial segregation in Southern states known as Jim Crow laws.

For example, says Powers, Hispanic families were prohibited from swimming in the public Tempe Beach Park swimming pool when it opened in 1923. In 1939, the Tempe City Council considered appropriating $500 for the construction of a separate swimming pool for Tempe's Hispanic population, but it was never built. Tempe Beach was finally desegregated in 1946, although Hispanic families were asked to comply with the pool's 3 Cs—"clean skin, clean conduct, and clean speech and in English."

"These were not neutral practices," says Powers. "All segregation policies, whether or not they are state sanctioned, are saturated with racial hierarchy."

In 2013, the National Council of La Raza published a report documenting housing discrimination experienced by Latinos. Over the course of 225 housing tests in three cities, Latino housing testers experienced "at least one type of adverse differential treatment 42 percent of the time ... when compared to their White counterparts." The NCLR attributes this discrimination, in part, to legislation like Arizona's S.B. 1070, which passed in 2010. When the Supreme Court upheld the controversial "show me your papers" provision, racial profiling and discrimination became effectively sanctioned under the law.

"This approach has created a dangerous anti-Latino sentiment which contributes to a hostile environment that affects all aspects of community life," concluded the report, "particularly the opportunity for equal housing."

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) received more than 28,000 complaints of housing discrimination. Most of these complaints—55 percent—involved discrimination based on disability.

Kameron England lives in Phoenix with her son, Christopher, who is 16 and autistic. "We've lived in apartment communities before and never had an issue," says England. When they moved into San Norterra apartments on the north side of Phoenix in March of 2016, "I said, this is the situation with my son, and they said, no problem."

But the problems began almost as soon as they moved in. Their upstairs neighbors "were having parties late into the night," says England. Over the course of the year, as different tenants moved in and out of the unit upstairs, England started documenting the noise. Like many autistic people, Chris is highly sensitive to stimulation. In a complaint England filed with HUD, she wrote that Chris "is under great stress due to the noise directly above their unit, specifically, his bedroom."

"It was bass, boom boom boom," says England. "My son would deal with it until about 11 at night, and then he knew he had to get up for school at 6:30. He'd start panicking. 'It's not going to stop. Mom, it's not going to stop.' It'd turn into pacing, hitting himself in his leg, crying," says England. She says the noise kept them awake three nights a week until 2 or 3 a.m. "The nights that it didn't happen, he was anxious, anticipating it happening."

Again and again, England complained to management, requesting reasonable accommodation for Chris's disability, which is protected under the Fair Housing Act. Although the management company offered to move them to a quieter apartment, on January 25, 2017, England came home to find a 60-Day Notice to Not Renew Lease posted to their door—an action that England believes was in retaliation for her multiple complaints.

In Arizona, the City of Phoenix's Equal Opportunity Department administers complaints on behalf of HUD. Elvia Espinoza, a fair housing program manager, received England's complaint from HUD and—after England refused the $400 settlement offered by the company that managed the apartment complex—began an investigation. "The issue wasn't whether or not there were noises or if the noises were excessive," says Espinoza. "The focus of the investigation was: What did management do to accommodate her?"

Under the Fair Housing Act, a landlord is obligated to make reasonable accommodations when necessary to offer a person with a disability the "equal opportunity to use and enjoy a dwelling." Espinoza says that the management company offered England various options "to accommodate her issue with the excessive noise."

Espinoza says, "The law doesn't say, You have to give me what I'm demanding that you give me. It just says that I have to engage with you in providing an effective accommodation"—which, she says, San Norterra did. Espinoza eventually found a "no cause" finding in favor of the company.

England maintains that she and Chris experienced discrimination. "It was extremely stressful for Chris," she says. "He saw me fight it. I wanted him to see—this is how you stand up for yourself." In March of 2017, they moved into another apartment complex. In their new apartment, "There are no breakdowns—not one since we've been in this place," says England. "We have peace in our home."

England was lucky. She could afford to move, and so she did. Not everyone can.

In 2017, a renter—who didn't want to be named because of an ongoing dispute—approached the SWFHC asking for help with an issue she was having with her landlord. She lives in a studio apartment in Tucson with three small dogs that had been prescribed by her doctor as service animals to help with mental health issues, including depression. The landlord asked for a security deposit for the dogs—a clear violation of the Fair Housing Act, says Hardwick. When she refused to pay, he put her rent money toward the deposit he said she owed, and is now demanding that she pay past-due rent. "Now she's afraid he's going to come in and take these dogs away from her," says Hardwick. "She feels like he has a lot of power over her." In addition to fearing the loss of her dogs, the woman now fears being evicted because of the back rent her landlord says she owes.

"When you're looking for housing that you can afford, you're stuck with limited choices," says Hardwick. "Most people would have moved by now." But this woman can't afford to move. She can't afford to pay the deposit her landlord demands in order to stay. So she waits—either to resolve the dispute with her landlord, or for her name to come up on the waitlist for public affordable housing.

"I don't know anyone that aspired to go into housing," says Sally Stang, the director of Housing and Community Development for the City of Tucson. "I always say, housing is just something that happens to you."

Housing happened to Stang in college, when she got a job at the Public Housing Authority in Lake County, Illinois. After 19 years, during which she "sat in every seat in the building," she moved to Tucson. Today, she oversees the city and county's public housing authorities. Stang is cheerful, a self-proclaimed "data freak," and straightforward about the challenges the department faces.

Tucson's public housing follows a scattered-site model, unlike many cities in the United States. "We don't have a lot of what you might call the projects," says Stang. Rather than high-rise, high-density apartment buildings, Tucson maintains 1,505 units spread across the city, including "single-family homes in almost every neighborhood," says Stang. "People don't even know that they're there." While scattered sites are more expensive to maintain—a hundred homes contain a hundred different toilets—it also means that public housing is much more integrated into the fabric of a neighborhood. Stang says this is no accident. "It was a concerted effort by the housing leadership of the past. It creates healthier neighborhoods."

But public housing is largely a thing of the past. HUD stopped issuing public housing contracts in 1992, so today's affordable housing units are built by private developers who receive tax breaks and other government subsidies. Instead, HUD has focused on the Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher Program, usually referred to just as Section 8. Individuals and families that qualify for Section 8 assistance receive a voucher that covers a portion of their monthly rent, usually enough so that they can spend between 30 to 40 percent of their income on rent and utilities.

Pima County has 5,756 Section 8 vouchers available for low-income residents. The waiting list, which is currently closed, has 18,000 families on it—the department is still waiting to offer vouchers to families that applied in 2011. Because vouchers are issued by HUD and determined by the federal budget, the number available for Pima County residents has remained mostly stagnant over the past two decades.

But Stang and her staff are working to make the most of the vouchers they do have. In January of 2015, the department changed their payment standards—the maximum subsidy they can provide to a voucher holder—to encourage people to move into higher opportunity areas. "It allows us to allow rents to be higher in higher cost areas and in areas of higher opportunity," says Stang.

Basically, the department is subsidizing people to live in higher cost—and thus, higher opportunity—neighborhoods. The program is a case study in affirmatively furthering fair housing. While payment standards are currently based on fair market rents according to zip code, Stang says that the SWFHC's opportunity maps could potentially be used to determine how the department subsidizes rents moving forward. "We really want to get at: Where are the jobs? Where are the better schools? Where are more grocery stores?" says Stang. "We want to make it so that if someone doesn't want to stay in their area, they have the opportunity to get out."

Of course, asking families to move isn't the only way to equalize access to opportunity. "Some people are absolutely choosing to live where they want to live, even though it may be a low opportunity area," says Stang. "I believe we have to respect that, too. And find other ways to invest in those communities."

How to invest in communities that have historically experienced disinvestment remains an open-ended question, but the SWFHC's Young hopes that the maps will help inform policy makers as they decide where to invest public funding in everything from schools and streets to business incentives and job creation.

"The more people have access to the things they need to thrive, the more access they have to better jobs, the better access they have to capital, the better it is for the whole community," says Young. "Some conservatives say affirmatively furthering fair housing is social engineering. No, it's undoing the social engineering of racist policies from the past."

In a way, this is a story of two kinds of mapping. In the 1930s, the federal government sponsored the creation of 200 maps that would segregate access to opportunity for generations. Now, nearly 90 years later, the government, with the help of nonprofit organizations like the SWFHC, is attempting to repair its damages by building tools for communities to understand and equalize access to opportunity.

"We can do something about segregation because we created it," says Young. "The more people have access to opportunity, the better off everybody is."

Southwest Fair Housing Council. 177 N. Church Ave., Suite 1104. 798-1568. Swfhc.com.

Megan Kimble is a writer and editor. She's the author of Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food.

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