RACE AND HOMELESSNESS

Updated: May 25

Family Promise Executive Director, Joe Nettesheim, recently participated in the Home for Everyone Conference, hosted by the Wisconsin Collaborative for Affordable Housing.


One of the themes that came through this conference was the impact that racism has had on homelessness. According to Bryan Greene from the National Realtors Association, in Wisconsin there is an almost 50% gap in homeownership between black and white residents. 25% of black people own homes in Wisconsin while 73% of white people own homes. This is one of the largest gaps in the entire country. A significant contributor to this is the racial segregation that exists in Milwaukee and surrounding communities.





Sadly, the racial segregation that currently exists is not by accident. It is based on a history of policies, legislation, codes, and a “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) attitude that is a part of our history. UW-Milwaukee has begun a project to map all the properties which included provisions that prohibited the sale of houses in certain neighborhoods or municipalities to races other than white.


These clauses are found in the contract of deeds of sale filed in Milwaukee County. One example read, “That none of the lots in said subdivision shall be conveyed or leased to, or be occupied by any person other than the white race…” The practice was designed to keep people of color out of certain neighborhoods. Even though this practice was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Shirley v. Kraemer in 1948, which prohibited restrictive covenants in deeds, the damage had been done. Milwaukee had effectively been built out by 1966.



A segment from a covenant used in Fox Point Gardens dating to 1940. This was taken from a document found at the UWM Library in the Lloyd Barbee collection.

 

This YouTube Video of Mapping Racism in Milwaukee, is a similar presentation to what was offered at the Home For Everyone conference. It was led by the Mapping Racism Team: Anne Bonds, Derrick Handley, Reggie Jackson and Lawrence Hoffman.


 

Besides not having the opportunity to purchase housing in restricted neighborhoods, black families were subjected to banks unwilling to lend them money. Housing ordinances in Milwaukee and surrounding suburbs appear to have been designed to keep people in their place and out of white neighborhoods. Unfair housing practices led to marches and protests that turned violent in 1967 when the marches were confronted by people who did not want open housing ordinances.


Zoning requirements enacted in the suburbs made it virtually impossible for people of color to reside there. Milwaukee Mayor Maier stated at the time, “The strongest, most all encompassing open-housing legislation imaginable would have little impact on the subtle, economic discrimination imposed by these requirements.”


Even though these practices were years ago, they continue to affect people today. A main benefit of homeownership is that it creates generational wealth. Being denied that opportunity years ago impacts the ability of people today to afford housing today. It is also a contributing factor to why the racial make-up of Waukesha County is the following:

  • White (Non-Hispanic) (88%),

  • White (Hispanic) (3.81%),

  • Asian (Non-Hispanic) (3.78%),

  • Black or African American (Non-Hispanic) (1.61%), and

  • Two races (Non-Hispanic) (1.43%).

We sometimes wonder why the racial makeup of our shelter program is 78% black, while prevention assistance serves 60% white. This high rate of black homelessness is not in line with the percentage of black people in the county. Are there more white people needing rental assistance because it is easier for them to obtain a rental property as a residual of unfair housing practices or still existent racial biases? It is unlikely that it is simply a coincidence.


The truth is we all have prejudice or bias. Those prejudices or biases have the highest potential to become hurtful when we do not reflect on them. It is imperative that we intentionally try to expand our experiences and understanding. The best way to diffuse our prejudice is to put ourselves in contact with those about whom we have made assumptions.


Not everything we face can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced. - James Baldwin

For Family Promise when our rotational model is fully functioning what tends to

happen is that a group of white people provide care and support to predominantly black people. Service is at its best when it is a learning experience for all those involved. If we are humble, quiet and approach service with an open mind it can be an opportunity

for us to learn about others. True service begins on an equal plane and provides an opportunity for mutual sharing. If that happens then relationships are built. Maybe this model of shelter and service is a strategy that can end segregation between the races in our region and increase housing options for people of color in our community.


 

The information provided in this blog came from two workshops at the Home for Everyone Conference. They were:


Milwaukee: Divided by Design. The presenters were Heidi Erstad, DBD-MKE Project Team Member and Heather Godley, High School Social Studies Teacher. You can learn more about Divided by Design


Mapping Racism: Prejudice and Resistance in Milwaukee County. The Mapping Racism project is reviewing millions of deeds filed in Milwaukee County in the twentieth century seeking racially restrictive language. Once it is discovered by a computer, it must be verified by five people. Then they will create a map of all the location where the house was located. Through this process they are learning stories of racism and segregation, but also stories of people who advocated for open housing. By 1928, roughly half of all homes owned by white Americans had race-restrictive covenants attached to their deeds, including many suburban areas .


 

Suggested Reading:

  • The Warmth of Other Suns

  • The Color of Law



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