Hear Us: We Must Center Blackness in Housing

Op-Ed: America's housing system was founded and grounded in white supremacy. To change it requires changing our relationship to land and reimagining how we live together.

(Photo by Bethanie Hines for the Insight Center, June 2020)

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Hear Us” is a column series that features experts of color and their insights on issues related to the economy and racial justice. Follow us here and at #HearUs4Justice.

As our country attempts to claw our way to a “new normal” after the past two years, the housing market is back to business as usual, rooted in extraction and exploitation, harming Black and brown people in disproportionate numbers. Rent and home prices are soaring, eviction moratoriums are expiring, and many have been thrown back into a state of housing insecurity. The housing market has always exacerbated inequality, and now policymakers and their inaction are allowing the market to do exactly what it was designed to do — maintain and reproduce injustice.

With all of this unfolding, my mind has been focused on how we can finally address our national housing crisis. I keep coming back to one clear path forward: We need a new vision when thinking about housing, one that centers Black people and their needs.

What would our homes, neighborhoods, and cities look like if we centered Blackness — Black joy, Black dreams and Black love? What would our relationship to land look like, how could we nurture existing kinship dynamics, and how could new ways of living help support Black people to thrive?

For too long, these questions have been ignored in the design of our neighborhoods and cities, and the housing policies that shape our built environment. Black Americans have been navigating and living in a racist housing system that was built to harm them. As a result, in 2019, 42% of Black people owned their homes in comparison to 72% of white households. In the rental market, Black people are more likely to face eviction, be severely cost-burdened, and face discrimination from landlords. Nationally, about 60% of unhoused families were headed by single mothers with nearly half (49%) being Black single mothers. Black people are more likely to live near hazardous waste, experience lead poisoning, and face the burdens of climate change because of how the government positioned Black neighborhoods through its policy choices.

This reality is not the result of individual choices or behaviors, as popular but pernicious narratives lead you to believe. They are a result of a housing industry and an entire society centered on white, Eurocentric values and norms.

From its inception, the American housing market was predicated on using land as a tool to create and maintain white supremacy. From slavery to Jim Crow, federal sponsored policies such as redlining, racial covenants, and urban renewal displaced and fragmented Black communities, constraining their geographic and economic mobility. At the same time, federal housing policies worked overtime to concentrate advantage for white people. An estimated 45 million living white Americans continue to benefit from land given to their ancestors through a single policy: the Homestead Act of 1862. Additionally, New Deal-era policies backed $120 billion of home loans, and more than 98% of those funds went to white households.

Perhaps the most striking example of how federal policymakers centered whiteness in their policies is through the subsidization of the white suburbs. In the 1960s the federal government pushed the idea that white suburban neighborhoods were the idyll of every nuclear family, a place where wealth and resources could be hoarded. The creation of white suburbs not only further concretized America’s caste system, but also hard-wired white patriarchal and heteronormative ideals of family and living into our housing policy.

In many cities today, 75% of residential land is zoned for single-family homes. The majority of our federal housing subsidies go towards homeownership programs. In 2015, Congress spent nearly double the amount on homeownership tax programs in comparison to federal rental assistance programs. And some homeownership programs (especially first-time homebuyer programs) are built off the notion of the nuclear family and restrict eligibility for only single-family homebuyers, rendering multigenerational housing arrangements and other definitions of kinship common to the Black experience to be invisible or undesirable.

Reimagining Housing Policy by Putting Black People at the Center

As Robin D.G. Kelley wrote in his book, Freedom Dreams, “Without new visions we don’t know what to build, only what to knock down.” The first step in centering Blackness in our housing system has to start with collectively creating a new vision that centers Black thought and the Black experience.

We get a window into this through our Black Thought Project. Since July 2019, the Insight Center has been co-designing the Black Thought Project with Alicia Walters, the Centering Blackness Fellow at the Insight Center. A narrative and culture shift project, the Black Thought Project installs walls in community spaces to provide a sanctuary for Black thought. We pose a question and create a space where only Black people can respond. After the murder of George Floyd, in a June 2020 installation in Oakland we posed the question, “What do you want for your Precious Black Life?” The answers we received spoke volumes on how we should be centering Black people in the design of our homes, neighborhoods and communities and form the beginnings of a new vision for housing.

We received answers that touched on the importance of kinship and family. People said that they wanted “to know who my Black ancestors/biological family is. To know their story and journey,” “to love who I love no judgment,” and “liberation for all my folk.” Black people have always relied more on extended family and extended forms of kinship than white Americans and a vision for housing that centers Blackness has to honor these community networks. As Mia Birdsong said in an interview “black families are expansive, fluid, and brilliantly rely on the support, knowledge, and capacity of ‘the village’ to take care of each other.”

Building a housing system that centers the idea of the village could mean rethinking the single-family house or rethinking the grid our cities have been built on in order to support these beautiful kinship networks. A housing system that is centered on Blackness must honor the spirit of community and collaboration over the privileging of individual family units. It also must honor the legacy of the generations of Black families living within a community or neighborhood, instead of displacing them through gentrification. Mehrsa Baradan’s 21st Century Homestead Act is a good example of a policy that addresses this.

Additionally, we cannot build a vision for housing that centers Black people without building new notions of safety and justice for Black people, since our current notions are grounded in police and punishment and fail to uplift and protect Black people. We received multiple answers that lifted up how Black people want to feel in their neighborhoods. Responses included “to thrive, not just survive,” “joy”, and “celebration.” Folks expressed that they want “to move through the world free of fear and shame,” “to be healthy in mind, body, spirit, and to know how to live unafraid,” and “not having to think about being safe all the time and just be myself.”

We cannot expect a housing system that was built on anti-blackness to work for Black Americans today. Just like there is no form of the prison industrial complex that does not result in upholding white supremacy, there is no form of our current housing market that does not result in the oppression of Black people. When we center Blackness, we honor all types of Black people and their multiple identities — (im)migrant, LGBTQI+, unhoused, middle class, and so on — making this a deeply inclusionary practice. By centering Blackness in housing policy we can create a vision for our homes and neighborhoods that allows all people the ability to access homes and neighborhoods in which they can thrive.

Notably, building a new vision for our housing system that centers Blackness is not an individual act but a collective one. We can build on existing networks of Black urban planners, policymakers, designers, dreamers, and artists such as BlackSpace and Design As Protest Collective to build this dream. Returning to my initial question: What would our homes, neighborhoods, and cities look like if we centered Blackness? I can’t answer that question on my own. But I’m looking forward to building that vision collectively. This is your invitation to dream with me.

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Natasha Hicks is a senior associate at the Insight Center

Tags: hear ushousing for all

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