St. Ambrose in the news and on the radio

*Update*: Obama: One year on – voters’ verdicts in Baltimore
(Foreclosure Prevention Director Anne Norton quoted)

St. Ambrose Homesharing fills need on both ends

Making Maryland Homes Affordable
(interview with Foreclosure Prevention Director Anne Norton)

U.S. mortgage aid funds moving slowly
(Deputy Director Lisa Evans quoted)

Home of The Wire fears return of the blight

(Foreclosure Prevention Director Anne Norton quoted)

Common Myths about Housing Rights

Part four of a four part series on the developing housing rights movement

From the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions:

Myth: The courts cannot protect housing rights
This is one of the most common myths propagated about the right to housing and other economic and social rights. The notion that housing rights are non-justiciable is usually based on a comparison with civil and political rights. Proponents of this myth believe, among other things, that unlike civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights, such as the right to housing, are too vague and too cost-intensive (requiring government action rather than inaction) to be litigated, and can only be implemented in a piecemeal fashion on the basis of policy, but not on law and justice.

Reality: Not only is the right to housing one of the most developed economic, social and cultural rights in terms of content, but a number of the constituent elements of the right to housing are adjudicated in courts of law, tribunals and other legal and quasi-legal forums on a daily basis. For example, in many countries landlord-tenant relations are regulated by legislation and enforced in courts or tribunals; discrimination with respect to accommodation is prohibited in national human rights legislation in countries across the world and land claims are commonly brought before adjudicators. Moreover, almost all countries have passed legislation on various aspects of housing, much of which can be brought before the courts. Concurrently, regional and international human rights bodies, such as the European Court of Human Rights, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination have directly considered housing rights issues in their case law or jurisprudence. COHRE’s publication Litigating Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: Achievements, Challenges and Strategies outlines a range of housing rights cases and litigation experiences and can be downloaded here.

General Comment No. 4 adopted by the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, identifies six specific areas within the right to housing that are capable of judicial scrutiny: legal appeals aimed at preventing planned evictions through the issuance of injunctions; legal procedures seeking compensation following an illegal eviction; complaints against illegal actions carried out or supported by landlords in relation to rent levels, dwelling maintenance, and racial or other forms of discrimination; allegations of any form of discrimination in the allocation and availability of access to housing; complaints against landlords concerning unhealthy or inadequate housing conditions; and class action suits in situations involving significantly increased levels of homelessness.

Myth: The State must build housing free of charge
Opponents of housing rights have often argued that recognising housing rights would require governments to build housing for the entire population – an entirely State-based, State-determined and State-driven approach to housing. Presumably, this myth came about based on literal interpretations of the term “right to housing”, and the notion that if the right to housing is granted to all, individuals would demand housing from the State despite the limited resources of the State to meet such demands.

Reality: The right to housing has never been interpreted under international law to mean that States must provide housing, free of charge, to all who request it. Rather, under international law, once a State accepts the obligations attached to the right to housing, it agrees to endeavour, by all appropriate means possible, to ensure that everyone has access to housing resources adequate for health, well-being and security. Upon assuming legal obligations, States are required to undertake a series of measures which indicate policy and legislative recognition of each of the constituent aspects of the right to housing, thus creating the necessary conditions so that all residents may enjoy the full entitlements of the right to housing within the shortest possible time-frame. This is both reasonable and realistic. Although international law may not require States to provide housing for everyone who requests it, some countries have voluntarily taken on this responsibility. Legislation in Finland, for example, makes it mandatory for local government to provide housing resources for the severely handicapped under certain circumstances. In other contexts, homeless children in South Africa, homeless families in the United Kingdom, victims of natural disasters or others with acute housing needs in many countries do have rights to immediate housing relief. The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has also provided some insight into whether States have to construct housing for all upon demand. The Committee has indicated that the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) requires States parties (that is, States which have ratified the ICESCR) to provide minimum subsistence rights for everyone regardless of the level of economic development of the country. This means that States parties must ensure, at the very least, minimum essential levels of each of the rights in the ICESCR, including the right to housing. Thus, a State party in which any significant number of individuals is deprived of basic shelter and housing would be failing to discharge its obligations under the ICESCR. In meeting their obligations under the ICESCR, States are required to give due priority to those who are most vulnerable and disadvantaged and consequently least able to achieve the right to housing themselves. In other words, State parties should provide housing or access to housing resources to those people who are homeless, inadequately housed or incapable of acquiring the bundle of entitlements that correspond with housing rights.

Myth: The State must fulfill the right to housing immediately
Many States are fearful of the right to housing because they mistakenly believe that the right to housing requires them immediately implement all housing rights obligations to comply with international law, and that a failure to do so will lead them to be classified as human rights violators.

Reality: Of course, it would be ideal if States could fulfil all aspects of the right to housing immediately. International law has recognized the impracticality of this and has responded by interpreting this right to mean that States parties will have some legal obligations that must be undertaken immediately and others that are more long-term or progressive in nature. In other words, protecting and enforcing the right to housing will involve some immediate action and some future action, all of which will eventually lead to the full, society-wide, enjoyment of this right. The immediate action required by State parties to the ICESCR arises out of article 2(2) of the ICESCR which stipulates that States parties “undertake to take steps … by all appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative measures”. In its General Comment No 3, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has interpreted this phrase to mean that State parties are obliged to immediately begin to adopt measures towards the full enjoyment by everyone of the right to housing. While the full realization of the right to housing might be achieved progressively, steps toward the goal must be taken within a reasonably short time after the Covenant is ratified by the State. The means by which this must be accomplished include – but are by no means limited to – the adoption of legislation. The Covenant also recognizes that some aspects of the right to housing may not be capable of immediate realization. In turn, according to the Covenant, States are obliged to undertake to achieve progressively the full realization of the rights contained in the ICESCR. The use of the term “progressive realization” is a recognition that full realization of all economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to housing, will generally not be able to be achieved in a short period of time. This does not mean, however, that States can indefinitely defer efforts to ensure the enjoyment of the rights in the Covenant.

For more housing rights myths from COHRE, click here.

* * *

Unfortunately, we cannot cover all the myths about housing rights in one post. However, I just wanted to include one final myth or controversy not mentioned above. That controversy is the incompatibility of positive and negative liberty.  The right to housing and other social, economic, and cultural rights (often referred to as positive liberties), are often pitted against civil and political rights (often referred to as negative liberties).

Read more about this controversy here, and share your thoughts with us!


I. Housing as a Human Right: Introduction

II. Why Take a Rights-Based Approach to Housing Issues?

III. Housing as a Human Right: Possibilities for Legal Advocacy

IV. Common Myths about Housing Rights


Housing as a Human Right: Possibilities for Legal Advocacy

Part three of a four part series on the developing housing rights movement

Given the benefits of framing housing as a human right [discussed here], could such a right possibly be established?

Historically, the United States has been resistant to recognizing social and economic rights, including the right to housing. The timing of the Federal Housing Administration’s establishment in 1934 and the passage of the 1937 Housing Act indicates that other rationales (e.g. humanitarian, functionalist, etc.) were at the heart of previous federal policy. Later, the Housing Act of 1949 established the explicit goal of “a decent home and suitable living environment for every American family.” However, by framing the policy as a “goal,” instead of a right, humanitarian concerns were still paramount—even though the right to housing had been affirmed a year earlier in Article 25 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR).

Since 1948, the right to housing and other economic and social rights have been reaffirmed in numerous international instruments such as the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (1965), the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (1966), and the International Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (1979). Of these, the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) “contains the most legally significant foundation of the right to housing at the international level.”[1] However, on the domestic front, the ICESCR—like many international documents—was only signed by the United States (by President Carter), and not ratified by the Senate. Therefore, it is not legally binding.

However, this does not mean that international law has no relevance to current domestic efforts to establish a right to housing. As a signatory to instruments such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, the United States still has legal obligations. Even thought the Covenant was only signed—not ratified—the US is still required by the Vienna Convention to “refrain from acts which would defeat the object and purpose of [the] treaty.”[2] In other words, the US has negative obligations. Such obligations have relevance to many housing issues, such as refraining from implementing laws that criminalize homelessness.

Moreover, as Maria Foscarinis, et al. have written, “Courts use international human rights law as an interpretive guide, to give content to general concepts such as standards of need and due process, and in further support of analyses under domestic law.”[3] For example, federal district courts and state courts of appeal have drawn upon international law in such cases as In Re White, Boehm v. Superior Court, and Lareau v. Manson. Even the US Supreme Court has brought “international norms and practices” to bear on US law “as evidenced by Roper v. Simmons, the case striking down the execution of minors as unconstitutional.”[4]

The interdependence of rights also provides a channel for legal advocacy. Foscarinis, et al., write that:

Jurisprudence emanating from the […] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [which was ratified by the United States] recognizes obligations under the right to life in Article 6, as well as under guarantees of non-discrimination, to take positive measures to address poverty and homelessness.  While the latter treaty is not self-executing, it can be used as an interpretive guide in cases where domestic law is absent or ambiguous; it may also be considered customary law and thus binding with the status of federal common law.[5]

Implicit within this statement is the interdependence of rights. In the quote above, the right to life and guarantees of non-discrimination are directly related to issues of poverty and homelessness. One’s right to life, for example, is not secure if one lacks adequate shelter. And guarantees of non-discrimination are potentially violated if certain groups are disproportionately affected by a lack of housing that, in turn, undermines other rights that they hold. Thus, due to the interdependence of human rights, the US’s ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights also entails government obligations relating to social and economic rights, including housing rights.

Finally, there is movement to establish housing as a human right at both the state and local level. A number of state constitutions, for example, “contain the seeds of a right to housing,” by including language that addresses caring for the needy, providing for the poor, or protecting citizen welfare.[6] As an example of human rights advocacy at the local level, “city councils in Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco have passed resolutions adopting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant for Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights.”[7]

Thus, there are many possible ways that international human rights norms, established in instruments such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, can be brought to bear on domestic legislation. The US’s negative obligations established under the Vienna Convention, the use of international law as an interpretive guide, the interdependence of rights, and legal advocacy at both the state and local level all provide avenues for realizing housing as a human right.


I. Housing as a Human Right: Introduction

II. Why Take a Rights-Based Approach to Housing Issues?

III. Housing as a Human Right: Possibilities for Legal Advocacy

IV. Common Myths about Housing Rights


[1] Scott Leckie. “Housing as a Human Right,” in Environment and Urbanization, October, 1989.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Maria Foscarinis, et all. “The Human Right to Housing: Making the Case in U.S. Advocacy,” in the Journal of Poverty Law and Policy. July-August, 2004.

[4] “Housing Rights for All: Promoting and Defending Housing Rights in the United States” The Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. 2009

[5] Maria Foscarinis, et all. “The Human Right to Housing: Making the Case in U.S. Advocacy,” in the Journal of Poverty Law and Policy. July-August, 2004.

[6] “Housing Rights for All: Promoting and Defending Housing Rights in the United States” The Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. 2009

[7] Ibid.

Why Take a Rights-Based Approach to Housing Issues?

Part two of a four part series on the developing housing rights movement

Discourse on economic and social injustice is changing. Now, when advocates and activists discuss pressing human needs or policy goals, their arguments are increasingly couched within a human rights framework. In the last few decades, this shift has become increasingly apparent within the movement to establish housing as a human right.

As Scott Leckie—the former Executive Director of the Center on Housing Rights and Evictions—has explained, there are many possible justifications for addressing housing issues: humanitarian, functionalist, social control-based arguments, and human rights-based arguments.[1] Given these possible justifications, why take a rights-based approach to housing issues? Why frame housing as a right that everyone is entitled to by the fact of their basic human dignity?

A number of legal and non-legal rationales support a rights-based approach. On the legal side, Leckie points out that such an approach establishes explicit and “legally binding obligations” for state actors and “enforceable entitlements” for citizens.[2] As a consequence, a rights-based approach would provide legal accountability. Once rights are established, governing institutions can be held accountable for meeting basic requirements. For example, the core components of  “adequate” housing—as defined by international law—include:  security of tenure, availability of services, affordability, habitability, accessibility, location, and cultural adequacy. These components provide a substantive benchmark for assessing the state of housing and maintaining accountability.

That said, a human rights-based approach does not have to be a purely legal approach. Leckie advocates social action that combines legal and political strategies.  With the support of a strong foundation based on human rights, “Public criticism, international embarrassment, complaints from other states, moves by opposition politicians, [and] criticisms in national and international media […] may yield more positive results than resorting to the courts,” writes Leckie.[3]

Moreover, such a rights-based approach to housing provides a new conceptual framework for understanding housing problems—one that differs from traditional humanitarian rationales. For Leckie, taking a rights-based approach “is not simply saying, ‘The government didn’t perform well so we are going to vote it out so that more people get housing.’ The rights based approach says, ‘The government has consciously done certain things or not done certain things and as a result of that it has violated the rights of its citizens.’”[4] By grounding the discussion in human rights, the problem is framed completely differently: a state that fails to meet a policy goal is very different from a state that violates the basic human dignity of its citizens.

Maria Foscarinis—the executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty—has also stressed the value of a human rights framework for addressing housing issues. For Foscarinis, a rights-based approach is particularly important now

when so much public debate on these issues—and resulting policy and law—about homelessness and poor people is premised on misguided, hostile, and divisive assumptions. Human rights are universal: they recognize and are based on the inherent dignity and value of all human beings.  The human rights framework can help foster an inclusive, unifying model for a true social safety net based on justice.” [5]

Thus, establishing housing as a human right would not only hold governments accountable through both legal and political approaches, it would also help to reframe public debate on housing issues.


I. Housing as a Human Right: Introduction

II. Why Take a Rights-Based Approach to Housing Issues?

III. Housing as a Human Right: Possibilities for Legal Advocacy

IV. Common Myths about Housing Rights


[1] Scott Leckie. “Housing as a Human Right,” in Environment and Urbanization, October, 1989.

[2] “Housing Rights for All: Promoting and Defending Housing Rights in the United States” The Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. 2009

[3] Scott Leckie. “Housing as a Human Right,” in Environment and Urbanization, October, 1989.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Housing Rights for All: Promoting and Defending Housing Rights in the United States” The Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions and the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. 2009

Housing as a Human Right

Part one of a four part series on the developing housing rights movement

“In the US, it’s feasible to provide adequate housing for all. You have a lot of money, a lot of dollars available. You have a lot of expertise. This is a perfect setting to really embrace housing as a human right”

— Raquel Rolnik, UN Special Rapporteur

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, Raquel Rolnik, recently ended her official fact-finding mission in the US. During her seven city tour—including Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, and other cities—Rolnik met with public officials, NGO representatives, and people experiencing homelessness in order to understand the current state of housing in the US. Her preliminary findings, while not necessarily surprising, are certainly damning: “millions of people living in the US today are facing serious challenges in accessing affordable and adequate housing.”

As the introductory quote above indicates, a common theme throughout Rolnik’s mission was that adequate housing is a basic human right. In order to explore this theme more thoroughly, Talk to St. Ambrose will be hosting a series of posts dealing with the emerging housing rights movement.


I. Housing as a Human Right: Introduction

II. Why Take a Rights-Based Approach to Housing Issues?

III. Housing as a Human Right: Possibilities for Legal Advocacy

IV. Common Myths about Housing Rights


For more information on the UN Housing Mission, click here.

St. Ambrose properties in Barclay receive “green” makeover

In late October, work began on five of eleven St. Ambrose rental properties that are currently slated for an energy upgrade. Located in the Barclay community, St. Ambrose purchased and rehabbed all eleven of the houses in the late 1970s. Today, the properties are receiving a “green” makeover that will help keep the properties affordable by lowering utility and maintenance costs for residents.

Funding for the improvements is provided as part of the Federal Stimulus program and is being administered by Baltimore City’s Department of Housing and Community Development’s (DHCD) Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP). WAP provides home improvements that reduce energy consumption and utility costs for low income households. WAP’s Director in Baltimore City, Ken Strong, and DHCD have worked dilligently with St. Ambrose in an effort to “green” these units and help us maintain affordable housing.

Much of the initial work done on the first five of the rental properties focuses on increasing the energy efficiency of the houses. Currently, attics are having additional insulation installed and basements are being sealed for air infiltration. Additional energy saving improvements include replacing unvented bath fans with vented ones to control moisture, replacing conventional light bulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs, and installing low-flow faucet aerators and shower heads.

The houses are also set to receive “cool roofs” through a consortium of partners assembled by Mr. Strong. The new white roof coating is expected to reduce attic temperatures by up to 70 degrees in the summertime. Civic Works is partnering with a local occupational training program to provide the labor for the project free of charge. The roofing materials are covered by stimulus funding and expanded Community Development Block Grants.

WAP, with another source of stimulus funding, will also provide new heating systems for the units. Five houses are slated to have their gas furnaces replaced with high efficiency furnaces. The other six houses will have their electric baseboard heating systems replaced with compact, high-efficiency boilers that will produce hot water in addition to heating the homes.

The total projected savings for the residents are substantial. Besides rent, utilities are the single largest housing expense for our residents-who are responsible for all utility costs. The energy upgrades are expected to save households close to 40% on their monthly utility bills. These savings will help to keep the houses affordable for our residents at a time when utility costs are on the rise.

For more information on the Weatherization Assistance Program, please visit:

Baltimore City Department of Housing and Community Development Weatherization Assistance Program

Maryland Department of Housing and Community Development Weatherization Assistance Program

_____________

Brian Devlin contributed to this post.

Foreclosure Q&A with Reece Dameron

Reece_DameronQ: The Baltimore Sun reported in August that “a record one in eight Marylanders [were] behind on their mortgages as of [last] spring.” Could you briefly describe the roots of this crisis?

A: In the past several years, many investors began to purchase mortgage backed securities. The subsequent increase in money for mortgages and demand for securities led lenders to relax their lending requirements. Lenders became more willing to make mortgage loans without first verifying the assets or even the income of the individuals to whom they were loaning money. Many of these risky subprime loans, often based on inflated property values, were nearly certain to fail from the moment the papers were signed. Lenders and loan originators were protected, however, because they were able to sell the mortgages to firms that bundled the loans into securities and then sold the securities to investors. When people began to default, the securities backed by subprime loans lost value. As a result, some banks and firms that owned those securities as assets failed. The bank failures impacted the rest of the economy and now, as people are losing their jobs or having their hours cut back, more people are beginning to miss payments.

Q: In March, the Obama Administration launched the $75 Billion Home Affordable Modification Program (HAMP). Could you briefly describe the program?

A: HAMP provides incentives to mortgage loan servicers who modify the terms of delinquent mortgages according to specific guidelines. If a borrower has suffered a hardship and their mortgage payment accounts for more than 31% of their gross monthly income, the servicer can modify the loan terms to reduce the payment to 31% by lowering the interest rate, extending the term of the mortgage, and in some circumstances forbearing principal. The program can be very helpful to borrowers in several ways, including sometimes significant reductions in their payments and helping to stop foreclosure sales. Additionally, the program will reduce the loan balance for borrowers who successfully make their payments over the long term.

Q: According to some, the program has gotten off to a slow start. Is this consistent with your experience-and has there been any change in the situation recently?

A: Yes, it does seem that the program has started slowly. It has taken some servicers a significant amount of time to adjust to the government guidelines and to increase their staff to serve everyone who needs help. However, just last week, the Treasury Department released new guidelines that should help to standardize and streamline the process.

Q: Commentators have described how the widespread mortgage defaults of subprime borrowers contributed to the banking crisis, which led to the recession, which in turn led to a second wave of foreclosures-this time including “prime borrowers,” or those who had good credit when they first got their mortgages. Have you seen more prime borrowers as clients as the crisis has continued?

A: We do seem to be seeing more prime loans, but I have not been tracking the numbers on a daily basis. Our first concern is to see if we can assist every homeowner who comes to us with a problem, regardless of where they started.

Q: What is it like for the average client seeking assistance with foreclosure prevention? How long is the average wait for modification?

A: There are several factors that can affect how long the process takes, and if everything goes right, it can still take three months or more. Some loan servicers are beginning to offer HAMP trial period plans based on financial information provided over the phone, but not everyone qualifies for a HAMP modification, and the trial period plan itself is not a permanent modification. Much of the process is dependent on the borrower. If a borrower has trouble controlling their spending, or did not keep track of their financial information very well, it can take longer. Of course, the servicers make mistakes as well and sometimes unnecessarily lengthen the process. Although being delinquent and facing possible foreclosure is understandably stressful, borrowers need to be patient during the process.

Q: The Congressional Oversight Panel recently issued a report stating that the Home Affordable Modification Program, “is targeted at the housing crisis as it existed six months ago, rather than as it exists right now,” and was not designed to deal with foreclosures caused by unemployment-a growing problem with the current economy. Panel Chairwoman Elizabeth Warren has expressed concern that the program is not doing enough and others have questioned whether the Administration will be able to reach its goal of preventing 3 or 4 million foreclosures. On the other hand, Federal Officials have reported this month that HAMP reached its initial goal of 500,000 trail mortgage modifications weeks ahead of schedule. Do you see things getting worse before they get better?

A: It’s difficult to say. The causes of the foreclosure crisis are changing, but it remains a story about how the economy writ large is affecting individuals and families. The economy is still not creating jobs and many people remain unemployed. People and families without sufficient income will be unable to make their mortgage payments. And the hard truth is that if a homeowner cannot pay their mortgage, they will eventually face foreclosure. Until the economy recovers, we can expect high rates of default, and we should ensure that there is assistance for homeowners that is tailored to the problems they are having. HAMP is certainly part of the solution, but other programs may be necessary as we go forward.

Q: What should someone do if they are facing foreclosure?

A: Since the process can be confusing and stressful, homeowners should immediately seek assistance if they have any questions or problems. Many people are afraid of working with their servicer or even admitting there is a problem, but they must know that the problem will not go away if they ignore it. More importantly, homeowners need to understand that the foreclosure process moves very quickly in Maryland and they should not wait until a foreclosure action is filed. Anyone who has already missed a payment or thinks they will be unable to make their next payment should consider themselves to be facing foreclosure. We can help homeowners, if they will let us.

* * *

Interviewed by Will Flagle

Reece Dameron is a recent addition the Foreclosure Prevention staff here at St. Ambrose. He is a 2007 graduate of the University of Texas School of Law who has previously worked on election law issues and landlord/tenant law. At St. Ambrose, Reece is helping our housing counselors and homeowners to find alternatives to foreclosure. Reece hails from Missouri.

Housing, White Privilege, and Wealth Inequality

As a social justice issue, housing seems simple and relatively bland: people need shelter, what else is there to talk about?

A lot, actually.

Housing issues are related to a complex web of social justice concerns. Two related concerns that are particularly relevant to housing are white privilege and wealth inequality. In fact,  understanding the history of discrimination in America—particularly housing discrimination—is indispensable to understanding contemporary economic inequality.  What’s the connection between housing,  white privilege, and wealth inequality? Here’s a statistic that might surprise you:

The Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration financed more than $120 billion worth of new housing between 1934 and 1962, but less than 2% of this real estate was available to nonwhite families—and most of that small amount was located in segregated communities.[1]

In other words, for almost three decades the U.S. government backed $120 billion worth of home loans and 98% (!) of those loans went to whites.

How did this institutionalized racism become possible?

Spurred on by massive mortgage foreclosures during the Great Depression, the federal government […] began underwriting mortgages in an effort to enable citizens to become homeowners. But the mortgage program was selectively administered by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), and urban neighborhoods considered poor risks were redlined—an action that excluded virtually all the black neighborhoods and many neighborhoods with a considerable number of European immigrants. [2]

More important than this shocking history, however, is the relationship between home ownership, wealth, and opportunity—a relationship that links past discrimination to economic inequality today. To begin with, a home is one of the most important assets that a family can own. As Dalton Conley—associate professor in the Department of Sociology at New York University—explains in the PBS documentary Racethe Power of an Illusion, “The majority of Americans hold most of their wealth in the form of home equity.”[3] Therefore, because of the significance of housing as an asset, discrimination in housing directly contributed to inequality in wealth accumulation.

Wealth, in turn, is an important determinate of the opportunities that a family can provide for their children. As Larry Adelman has written, “a family’s net worth is not simply the finish line, it’s also the starting line for the next generation.”[4] A family can take out a second mortgage on their home, for instance, to finance their child’s college education or job search. Actions such as these can significantly affect a child’s life trajectory.  Indeed, because of the way that wealth creates opportunity, “Economists have shown that about 50-80% of our lifetime wealth accumulation is really attributable, in one way or another, to past generations,” writes Conley. Wealth, in other words, provides a mechanism that transfers opportunity, or the absence of opportunity, from one generation to the next. It is this intergenerational link between wealth and opportunity that explains why the effects of long past institutionalized racism—such as FHA housing discrimination—are still felt today.  [*]

How are the effects of historic discrimination still felt? Take the “wealth gap,” for example. Thomas Shapiro, in The Hidden Cost of Being African American, writes that “The net worth of typical white families is $81,000 compared to $8,000 for black families.”[6] That’s a 10:1 difference! This present day racial inequality in wealth, however, must be understood in light of the history of institutionalized racism and privilege. And housing discrimination is a fundamental part of that history. As previously mentioned, a home is often a family’s most important asset or source of wealth. Housing discrimination, therefore, created inequality in the accumulation of wealth. Moreover, wealth has two distinct characteristics: 1) it creates opportunity and 2) is it inheritable. The combination of these characteristics produced a dynamic whereby inequality in wealth—initially bolstered by discriminatory practices—was often passed down and maintained from one generation to the next. So long past discrimination in housing affected the wealth and opportunities of later generations. In short, past housing discrimination is an important factor in explaining economic inequality today. Conley writes:

Today, the average Black family has only one-eighth the net worth or assets of the average white family. That difference has seemingly grown since the 1960s, since the Civil Rights triumphs, and is not explained by other factors like education, earnings rates or savings rates. It is really the legacy of racial inequality from generations past. No other measure captures the legacy – the cumulative disadvantage of race for minorities or cumulative advantage of race for whites – than net worth or wealth.[7]

Thus, the reverberations of long past institutionalized racism are still felt today. As a primary example, housing discrimination creates inequality in wealth and opportunity that is often inherited by succeeding generations. Tracing back the linkages between present day inequalities in wealth and past housing discrimination demonstrates that—as a social justice issue—housing isn’t simple. Yet these linkages also show that, in spite of their complexity, contemporary housing issues remain as important as ever.


[1] George Lipsitz. 1998. The Possessive Investment in Whiteness. Philadelphia:Temple University Press.

[2] William Julius Wilson. (2005 [1996]) “When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor,” in Mapping the Social Landscape: Readings in Sociology. ed. by Susan Ferguson. New York: McGraw Hill.

[3] Dalton Conley. 2003. Interviewed in Race the Power of an Illusion. PBS Transcript available at http://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_04-background-03-03.htm.

[4] Larry Adelman. 2003. A Long History of Racial Preferences – For Whites . http://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_04-background-03-02.htm.

[*] Note that wealth, not income, has been the touchstone for economic status throughout this discussion. This is no accident. For wealth, not income, is a much better indicator of opportunity: “Even when families of the same income are compared,” explains Adelman, “white families have more than twice the wealth of Black families. Much of that wealth difference can be attributed to the value of one’s home, and how much one inherited from parents.”

[6] Thomas M. Shapiro. 2004. The Hidden Cost of Being African American: How Wealth Perpetuates Inequality. New York: Oxford University Press.

[7] Dalton Conley. 2003. Interviewed in Race the Power of an Illusion. PBS Transcript available at http://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_04-background-03-03.htm.