Study: Historical Redlining Maps No Longer a Proxy for Black America

Black Americans have moved on from formerly redlined neighborhoods, and other minorities and whites have moved in. The wave of presidential campaigns that have based housing policy proposals on redlining maps might be misguided as a result.

October 15, 2019, 2:00 PM PDT

By James Brasuell @CasualBrasuell


Andre M. Perry and David Harshbarger share the findings of new research suggesting that by focusing on redlining maps, housing policy reforms might not deliver benefits to the intended population.

The context for the research is set by the presidential campaign platforms of several Democratic hopefuls for the job:

Over the last few months, several Democratic presidential hopefuls—namely Sen. Kamala Harris (Calif.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), and South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg—have released housing proposals that utilize a curious vector to implement their respective remedies for historical discrimination: redlining maps.

Redlining was the practice of outlining areas with sizable Black populations in red ink on maps as a warning to mortgage lenders, effectively isolating Black people in areas that would suffer lower levels of investment than their white counterparts. The Democratic candidates hope that the contours of these old maps—once used by the government-sponsored Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) from 1933 to 1977—offer the blueprint for closing the racial homeownership gap and increasing prosperity among largely Black and Brown Americans who were robbed of wealth for generations under redlining’s legal discriminatory policy.

So what's the problem with the idea of focusing relief in the places where the most damage was done by racist and discriminatory regulatory history? In 2019, Black populations do not make up most of the residents in formerly redlined neighborhoods.

The University of Richmond’s Mapping Inequality project has digitized scans of the HOLC redlining maps held in the National Archives. Examination of the maps, numbering over 200, reveals that approximately 11 million Americans (10,852,727) live in once-redlined areas, according to the latest population data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey (2017). This population is majority-minority but not majority-Black, and, contrary to conventional perceptions, Black residents also do not form a plurality in these areas overall. The Black population share is approximately 28%, ranking third among the racial groups who live in formerly redlined areas, behind white and Latino or Hispanic residents.

The article shares a lot more data and insights about the variations between formerly redline neighborhoods, the changes in demographics in those areas, and more reasons to question the HOLC's redlining maps as a useful proxy for black neighborhoods when setting progressive housing policy.

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