This story is part of a series of submissions to Central Current by CNY Fair Housing explaining its Run the Redline event and how redlining affects Syracuse. CNY Fair Housing is a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring housing access and eliminating housing discrimination. Read the first story in the series here.

CNY Fair Housing will host the first ‘Run the Redline’ through portions of downtown Syracuse on Sept. 17. The route — which can be run, rolled or strolled — traces a portion of the red lines drawn across the city by federal and local housing officials during the 1930s.

What is redlining?

Redlining was a racially discriminatory national housing policy created by the federal government in partnership with local officials and real estate professionals during the Great Depression.

This racist public policy denied Black families access to the tools that white Americans used to build generational wealth, and it helped to extend and entrench racial residential segregation in communities across the nation.

In the 1930s, a new federal agency called the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) created the practice of “redlining” as part of its attempt to slow a nation-wide wave of mortgage foreclosures. HOLC helped homeowners refinance mortgages over longer amortization periods with lower monthly payments. In this way, the federal government subsidized homeownership for many families.

HOLC did not extend this aid to all Americans. To determine whether properties were suitable for refinancing, HOLC worked with local government officials and private real estate agents from 239 cities across the country, including Syracuse, to create “residential security maps.”

These maps categorized neighborhoods on a four-tier scale. These rankings typically favored newer, suburban communities and gave the lowest rankings for older, city neighborhoods. Households in highly rated neighborhoods could access financial assistance while families living in poorly rated neighborhoods could not.

Redlining leads to segregation

In Syracuse, as in other cities, race was an important factor in rating neighborhoods. Areas that were predominantly African American, regardless of the condition of the housing or the financial means of local residents, were considered the highest risk for loans and were colored red or “redlined.”

In justifying its decision to redline the areas just east of Downtown Syracuse, for instance, HOLC agents referred to the race of people living in those neighborhoods. 

By assigning credit worthiness to entire neighborhoods rather than individuals, redlining contributed to housing discrimination and racial residential segregation in two ways.

First, it denied Black families the opportunity to build generational wealth through homeownership. Even if they had the ability to repay a loan, Black families could not participate in HOLC’s programs because their very existence meant that their neighborhood was redlined and therefore denied federal aid.

Second, redlining encouraged white families both to flee integrated neighborhoods and exclude Black families from segregated white neighborhoods to preserve their own ability to access federal homeownership aid.

Blockbusting and “white flight”

Redlining set the stage for later acts of housing discrimination.

Because redlining devalued integrated neighborhoods, real estate speculators could trick white homeowners into selling their properties below market value by suggesting that Black families might soon move into their neighborhood—a practice known as blockbusting.

Those speculators then resold the homes at inflated prices to Black families who had few other options to purchase homes. Often these homes were sold using predatory practices such as land contracts that made homeownership difficult to maintain.

People living in redlined neighborhoods could not access the financing necessary to invest in basic property maintenance. By the time the federal government began investing in urban renewal, the housing stock in many of these neighborhoods had deteriorated due to the systemic disinvestment caused by redlining. As a result, cities targeted their redlined neighborhoods for demolition and displaced countless Black families in the process.

“We still live with the effects of redlining 100 years later,” said Alex Lawson, Policy Coordinator at CNY Fair Housing. “Across America, historically redlined neighborhoods have less educational opportunity, less access to medical care, and even fewer trees than other neighborhoods.”

CNY Fair Housing will continue this series with an abbreviated analysis on redlining and its impact on Syracuse. For a more in-depth analysis, read CNY Fair Housing’s report on Zoning and Segregation in Syracuse, NY

read more

Suggested Reading