Racism in real estate

By SEAN FLYNN  |  May 13, 2009

Consider: in 1985, according to a Boston Redevelopment Authority (BRA) study, blacks made up 25 percent of Boston's total population – 76 percent of whom were concentrated in the adjoining, and predominantly black, neighborhoods of Roxbury, Mattapan, and South Dorchester. And while another 17 percent of the city's blacks lived, according to the BRA study, in the mostly white neighborhoods of Hyde Park, North Dorchester, and the more evenly integrated Jamaica Plain, that can be attributed less to integration than to an expansion of Boston's growing minority population into areas that border the city's established black core.

Meanwhile, six of Boston's 16 neighborhoods were found to be more than 90 percent white. Four of them – South Boston, Charlestown, East Boston, and downtown – had zero percent blacks living in them; Allston-Brighton, Roslindale, and West Roxbury all had black populations of two percent or less. And according to 1980 census data of 22 cities and towns surrounding Boston, 19 had black populations of less than 3 percent. And in 13 of those communities, blacks actually made up less than one percent of the population.

Part of that disparity, some sources say, is a result more of economics than of outright housing discrimination.

"I think the whole affordable-housing issue overshadows discrimination," says Wilson Henderson, director of the Massachusetts Housing Finance Agency's (MHFA) equal-opportunity division. A full third of black families live in poverty, according to Henderson, who argues that persons with low incomes tend to be less mobile than their wealthy counterparts, and therefore prefer to live closer to a familiar social structure. And the perception that housing costs in communities of color are so much cheaper may also convince many minorities that moving into white neighborhoods is economically impossible. (According to a 1981 neighborhood-by-neighborhood survey of rents conducted by the Massachusetts Tenants Organization, however, that perception is highly overstated. The then-median $383 monthly rent in Roxbury, Mission Hill, and Mattapan was only four percent lower than the city-wide average of $402. And it was more expensive than prices in white neighborhoods such as Roslindale and East Boston, and at least a dozen largely white suburbs.)

Others argue that many people of color have no desire to leave their communities. Many who could afford to live elsewhere are perfectly content to stay, say these observers, and resent the implication that moving into white areas should be some sort of innate desire. Others, says Arthur Eskew, a housing advocate at the Roxbury Multi-Service Center, either fear racial harassment or are just too weary to fight the system of discrimination. "You [whites] have beaten us [people of color] so badly, I don't think there's the will to fight segregation," he says. "And I wouldn't feel safe in an all-white community."

But those minorities who do buck the tide and try to move into largely white neighborhoods often run smack up against either overt or covert discrimination in the housing industry. "You'd really be spitting in the wind if you tried to say that [discrimination] wasn't the reason for the patterns we're seeing," says Ernest Gutierrez, executive director of the Boston Fair Housing Commission.

"It's a big problem," says one real-estate broker. "And it's all over eastern Massachusetts."

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