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Racism, Housing, and Cities

Anthony Manousos
On Secrets (July 2020)
Healing the World

Eight years ago, I married Jill Shook, a housing justice advocate and Evangelical Christian who loves Jesus and justice. She also loves Quakers and attends Orange Grove Meeting (and the Methodist Church). The more I walk or drive around Pasadena with her, the more I see a side of this city that I never even imagined before. I have come to see the “secret life” of this city – how housing policies determine where and how homes are built and businesses are situated. Cities don’t just happen, they are created and shaped by policy makers with values that are often colored by classism, xenophobia, and racism.

As I became more involved in housing justice work with Jill, I also came to appreciate what Jesus meant when he said, “Love your neighbor.” By this, he also meant, “Love your neighborhood.” Jesus loved cities as much as he loved individuals. He wept over the city of Jerusalem, calling out, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones God’s messengers! How often I have wanted to gather your children together as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wings, but you wouldn’t let me” (Matthew 23:37).

Gradually, I have learned from Jill the secret of how to love my city. (You can, too. Look for her book, Making Housing Happen: Faith-Based Affordable Housing Models.) After I’d been married to Jill for a year, a pastor friend of hers surprised me with this observation, “Anthony, when you married Jill, you married the city of Pasadena.” Strange as that may sound, it’s true. Jill is committed to Pasadena; she loves this city and wants to see it thrive. Now I feel the same way. I love Pasadena, and I take part continually in public events, go to city council meetings, and get to know all my neighbors, from the Mayor to the homeless people who sleep on the sidewalks near City Hall.

Jill and I live in a city that prides itself on its historical character, but which often hides from its dark history of racism. Our neighborhood, Northwest Pasadena, was once the only place where Blacks could live in Pasadena. Restrictive covenants prevented homeowners from selling to anyone except Anglo-Saxon Protestants in other parts of the city. That is, they could not sell to black people, brown people, Jews, or Catholics. Such policy-based segregation existed in most major U.S. cities prior to the Fair Housing Act of 1968, passed just one week after Dr. King’s assassination (fair housing being one of the last campaigns he worked on).

Northwest Pasadena was once “red-lined” – meaning banks would not loan money to certain people wanting to buy homes there. Jill moved there in the 1990s when the Northwest was gang-ridden and mostly African American. Because homes were cheaper there, middle-class whites started moving in, driving up home prices. As a result, Pasadena’s Black population dropped 24% from 2000 to 2010, replaced mostly by Asians and Pacific Islanders, according to 2010 Census figures. As of 2020, only 9.7% of Pasadenans are Black. Some were priced out, and others cashed out, selling their homes and moving to less expensive areas. Modest bungalows like the one we live in now sell for $700,000 and up.  Realizing she unwittingly became part of this problem, Jill became an advocate for affordable housing.

Orange Grove Meeting is located in Northwest Pasadena, in the heart of an impoverished Latino neighborhood. Most Orange Grove Friends commute to meeting from other parts of the city and know little about this neighborhood. Many years ago, Jill canvassed the meeting’s neighborhood to start a tutoring program, and she knows many residents well. To help our meeting know the neighborhood better, Jill has taken us on tours to learn about the neighborhood’s history and assets. Northwest Pasadena is full of great people and restaurants and small businesses with delicious Latin American food and products. But it also contains dire poverty. The median income of a family of four in this census tract is $25,000 – and the cost of rent for an apartment here averages $2,000 per month and up. In other words, families either have to pay all their income on rent or “double up” with other families. This kind of overcrowding can be a major driver of many social ills, like poor academic performance and gangs.

Loving a city means learning its dark secrets and what we can do to help. Two years ago, Jill and I started a nonprofit called Making Housing and Community Happen (MHCH), which advocates for affordable housing for residents and for permanent supportive housing for homeless people. As a result of our efforts, which are supported by Orange Grove Meeting, our city approved 135 units of permanent supportive housing, which is what ends homelessness. We’re working on a city-wide plan to reduce chronic homelessness to “functional zero” in the next five years.

To end poverty, we need to understand its root causes, which are often hidden from sight. Jill taught a graduate course on housing justice in the social work program at Azusa Pacific University. To help students understand how housing policy affects people’s lives, we created an “Unjust Housing Game,” based on Monopoly.

In this game, each player receives a white or a black bean. Players with a white bean receive twenty pennies (worth $100 each) and players with a black bean receive two pennies. These pennies represent the actual wealth inequality in the U.S. between whites and blacks. Players roll dice and receive pennies for the numbers they throw. That’s fair enough. But they must also choose from a stack of either white or black cards, depending on the color of their bean. The cards represent actual housing policies. Here are some examples:

WHITE CARD: Congratulations! Your father received a GI Bill loan, a program initiated in 1944. He bought a nice home in the suburbs. This helped your family to do well. (Around 98% of recipients of this loan were white.) Collect $300.

BLACK CARD: After a seven year wait, you receive a Section 8 Housing Voucher, enabling you to pay only a third of your income on rent, but unfortunately (like around 50% of recipients of voucher), you can’t find a landlord willing to accept this voucher within the required time limit, and you lose your voucher and go back on the waiting list. Forfeit $200.

WHITE CARD: You live in a town with very few poor people or people of color. Your property values rise! Receive $500.

BLACK CARD: A freeway runs through your neighborhood. Your community is destroyed, and you lose your home through eminent domain. You aren’t given enough compensation to buy a new home, and you become a renter. Forfeit $400.

The real impacts of the real policies that are depicted in the Unjust Housing Game are profound. In 2017, the Los Angeles County waiting list for the housing voucher program had an eleven-year wait time; there were about 40,000 names on the list, which has been closed to new names since 2009. In Pasadena, there are approximately 23,000 people on the waiting list.

In the 1990s, new suburban towns across the U.S. incorporated to prevent low-income Section 8 voucher holders from “encroaching.” These new cities prevented multifamily zoning and ensured large lots sizes. The populations of these new cites are typically over 90% white.

As you play the Unjust Housing Game, you realize that the real estate game is rigged against people of color. (No surprise if you happen to be a person of color!) Housing injustice is a major reason for the income disparity between whites and blacks in the U.S.

To end poverty, we also need to do more than understand its root causes, we need to work for systemic change. Feeding programs and shelters are fine stopgaps, but as one homeless woman told me, “I like it when people make me sandwiches, but I’d rather make my own sandwich in my own apartment.” The secret of good organizing is not merely passing good policies and winning victories, but also working in partnership with people who are marginalized, helping them build long-term relationships with people in power. To win those 135 units of permanent supportive housing in Pasadena, we worked with – not just for – our homeless neighbors.

We Quakers have fought housing injustice before. Among other things, we started Self-Help Enterprises, which became the inspiration for Habitat for Humanity. That’s why I have partnered with Western Friend to host a webinar called “Loving Your Neighborhood” on Thursday, August 6, 2020, at 7:00 PM Pacific Time. Together we’ll consider what Friends can do to address the crisis of homelessness and affordable housing in the U.S. Let’s work together to make ending homelessness and poverty a reality!  ~~~

Anthony Manousos is a former editor of Western Friend and the author and editor of numerous books and pamphlets. He serves on the General Committee of FCNL and on the board of Interfaith Communities Uniting for Justice and Peace; he is co-founder of Making Housing and Community Happen. For more information about Anthony’s work, see makinghousinghappen.org and laquaker.blogspot.com. Anthony is a member of Orange Grove Friends Meeting in Pasadena, CA (PacYM).

housing justice affordable housing Racial Justice

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