Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles detailing affordable housing in the metro.
In the City of Omaha’s Housing Affordability Action Plan, three maps highlight the lasting effects of a practice outlawed decades ago: redlining.
“One of the city’s biggest challenges is the lasting impact these practices have had on residents. In areas of North and South Omaha, where redlining was a historic practice, homeownership rates are low and many renter households are cost-burdened,” the study notes.
If you haven’t heard the term “redlining,” Dr. Terri Crawford said you’re not alone.
Crawford is a community fellow for the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Service Learning Academy and an instructor for the Black Studies course. She’s also on the governing board of the new documentary “Divisible” and provides in-depth tours of the “Undesign the Redline” exhibit at UNO.
“If you haven’t lived it, then you have no real reason to know that this is what happened and continues to happen,” she said.
A Brief History
Back-to-back crises in 1929 and 1930 set the stage for discriminatory policies.
In 1929 the stock market crashed, triggering an international crisis and causing bank failures across the board in 1930. By 1930 four million Americans were jobless, increasing to six million in 1931.
Also in 1930, severe drought plagued the Midwest and the Great Plains followed by dust storms in 1931. Regular rainfall would not return until the end of 1939.
The national average income fell to less than half of what it had been and nearly one million Americans faced foreclosure on their homes by 1933.
A Discriminatory Solution
To combat the foreclosures, newly elected Franklin D. Roosevelt released numerous “New Deal” acts, including the National Housing Act of 1934, which would provide federal loans to guarantee mortgages. However, only white Americans in historically white neighborhoods could receive loans.
‘Redlining’ refers to the literal red lines drawn by the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC) and the Federal Home Loan Bank Board to block out neighborhoods that were predominantly Black, or had high concentrations of immigrants. These “Redlined” neighborhoods were classified as “hazardous risks.”
In Omaha, this included “Near North Side,” with Locust Street to the north and Cuming Street to the south, bordered by North 20th Street on the east and North 30th Street on the west.
In South Omaha, the redlined area included Q Street to the north and Harrison Street to the south, with part of south 36th Street to the west, and Kennedy Freeway to the east.
At the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement came the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which made redlining through federally funded programs illegal.
“However, that did not change the practice,” Crawford said. “It just morphed into other practices that had the same impact and that has never really changed for cities across America.”
It’s important to emphasize that Omaha is not the only city grappling with the ramifications of redlining.
Davielle Phillips moved to Lincoln, Nebraska from Chicago, Illinois to attend school at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He said although he was raised to be thankful for what he had, as he matured he began to understand how external factors contributed to his upbringing.
“From having to return home from playing with friends when the streetlights came on for safety, to boarded up homes in the community, poor neighborhood schools with barely enough resources to supply students with books and educational materials, and areas that were subject to violence and crime due to the lack of jobs and resources,” Phillips said.
“Many do not realize but, most of the social and economic circumstances and issues in our communities arise from practices like redlining.”
Backing up what many living in previously redlined areas is the the often cited “Not Even Past: Social Vulnerability and the Legacy of Redlining.”
The project, released in 2019, stems from a partnership from the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab and the National Community Reinvestment Coalition where it digitized 200 HOLC grading maps from the 1930s.
Using data from the 2018 U.S. Census’s American Community Survey (ACS) and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index (SVI), the project shows the lasting socioeconomic impact of redlining.
Individuals who live in or around Near North Side have shorter life expectancies and have the highest percentages of kidney disease, obesity, pulmonary disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and asthma. Many of these conditions have formed as a result of barriers to access, whether it’s health care, education, or funds.
Crawford, a fifth-generation North Omahan, has first-hand experience with these factors.
“I was very young at the time, but I remember that bus services only ran to certain areas in the city, and then would turn around,” she said. “There was a lack of nutritious, healthy food that was affordable for families that lived in impacted areas.”
Nearly 44% of Near North Side residents live in poverty, and a majority are spending over 30% of their income on rent.
Kim Bradford said her family was the second Black family to move into the neighborhood around 16th and Pickney streets. Her family still lives in the home she was born in.
“Racism was very prevalent and impacted our housing stability and safety,” she said. “Some of the impacts included neighbors not being told of the hidden dangers such as lead from the battery plant.”
All of these factors restrict Black individuals and minorities from building generational wealth.
Investing in Communities
As the Riverfront and the NoDo (North Downtown) District receive steep reinvestment, community members are worried gentrification will push out long-time North Omaha residents who are already cost-burdened.
One initiative aimed at helping long-time North and South Omaha residents is the Greenlining Fund. The fund, distributed by Front Porch Investments (FPI), was set at $1 million for the first round, which received 227 applications.
“The initial funding commitment will not serve everyone who was eligible,” said Naomi Hattaway, communications lead for FPI.
To help make funding decisions, FPI brought in 15 community members from North and South Omaha to form the Community Advisory Committee. Phillips, who now lives in Omaha and works for Holland Basham Architects, serves as chair of the committee.
“This work serves as an opportunity to speak with people in the community, to listen to their stories, to bring a greater understanding and perspective of the issues, and to create targeted solutions for positive change,” he said. “For me, I get to be part of the change I wanted to see and the change I needed as a young man growing up in these conditions.”
Bradford also serves on the Community Advisory Committee.
“Joining this committee has given me the opportunity to speak for people that may never be heard,” she said. “This committee is providing opportunities to enhance and encourage growth in our neighborhoods.”
The recipients will receive a 0% equity home loan to make home improvements they might not otherwise be able to afford, such as a new roof or making mobility modifications.
“An innovative and equitable practice embedded in the home equity loan approval is the policy of utilizing non-traditional credit and income verification,” said Meridith Dillion, who launched the pilot program before announcing her departure from the organization she helped found.
“Our lending partner is also using an automated valuation model for property values, instead of local appraisals, due to the documented bias and often harmful valuations from the industry.”
When loans are repaid they will be reinvested in Qualified Census Tracts of North and South Omaha.
But, Crawford said there are more pieces to the puzzle.
“You can’t pay your way out of this problem,” she said. “This is embedded in who we are as Americans, in our policies, and how those policies continue to have a disparate impact on marginalized communities.”
Part of the work, arguably the most difficult part, is sharing information and having tough conversations surrounding racism.
“We always start with this conversation is not about guilt or blame; it’s about our collective history,” she said. “How can we come to a place where we can reconcile that history in order to reframe and reinvest into these places that have been historically disinvested in?
“Is it difficult? Absolutely. Is it a necessary conversation? Absolutely. You have to be courageous enough to admit that [systemic racism] continues to exist.”
One of the ways local advocates are approaching citizens is through the documentary “Divisible.” The first showing was at the Benson Theater. The board chose Benson due to its inclusion in redlining, as well as current gentrification.
“It’s about honoring those who have been impacted, and then having a conversation with those that are now moving into these neighborhoods and changing the face of what it looks like,” she said.