We are a segregated society. How do we improve Black homeownership and build wealth? 

The words "Solutions Sidebar" and "Richard Rothstein and Leah Rothstein" and their books The Color of Law and Just Action are superimposed over a redlining map.
Authors Richard and Leah Rothstein say there are things communities can do to help remedy our segregated past.

A Blueprint for Neighborhood Equity

In The Color of Law, author and researcher Richard Rothstein painstakingly lays out the history of segregation. He says it didn’t happen by accident but instead was the result of racist governmental policies.  

Rothstein told Brick by Brick in an interview, “We would not have a segregated society today if the federal government and state and local governments hadn’t imposed unconstitutional policies to require segregation.” 

As a result, Cincinnati, Dayton, and other U.S. cities are segregated in part because of the following: 

  • Beginning in the 1930s The Federal Housing Administration refused to insure the loans for houses for Black families 
  • Also in the 1930s and beyond The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) created maps that helped deny credit to people who lived in inner-city neighborhoods. The neighborhoods to which Blacks were confined were “redlined,” meaning that they were off limits for conventional bank loans and mortgages. CET/ThinkTV/PBS did a special on redlining looking at Dayton and Springfield.  

These governmental policies were designed to suburbanize the entire white working class and middle class populations. 

“Move them out of urban areas where they were living into single family homes in all white suburbs, from which African Americans were prohibited from living by explicit federal policy,” says Rothstein. 

One of the few remaining options for the excluded homebuyers included land contracts, which offered no legal protection, as they were outside of any banking system. 

Rothstein says “terribly problematic” land contracts still exist in Cincinnati and other places. “The FHA’s redlining necessitated the contract sale system for black homeowners unable to obtain conventional mortgages and this created the conditions for neighborhood deterioration.” As a result: 

  • Families did not gain equity 
  • Speculators had an incentive to evict and foreclose on people as they came close to paying off their loan 

Unfair land contracts and higher property taxes: two trickle-down examples 

Land contracts are still around today, under a different guise. WCPO reports when Earnest Heyward saw a sign in 2015 offering “lease 2 own” at 2860 Losantiville Ave. It seemed like a good deal.  

It wasn’t. Heyward signed a lease, “paying $1,156 down and $406 per month with an option to buy it for $35,000.” WCPO reports the owner, Vision-related company KAJA Holdings paid $0 for the property from Fannie Mae in 2014.  When Heyward moved in, he found black mold, a filthy carpet and cracked and uneven floor. There were also roofing issues.  

“They sell people a dream that’s not realistic. They are gangsters with the paperwork,” he told the outlet. 

Heyward eventually stopped making payments, was evicted, and bought another place. His complaint wasn’t the only one. 

The City of Cincinnati sued and in 2018 settled with two companies – Vision and Harbour – over predatory business practices. This was part of an effort to, “bring about systemic change in how large-scale property owners do business in the city and with city residents,” said then City Solicitor Paula Boggs Muething.  

Vision paid the city more than $88,000 and Harbour handed over $125,000. As part of those settlements, they turned over nuisance properties, agreed to building inspections, and will disclose any known defects, among other things.  

Policy Matters Ohio reports from January 2008 to January 2018 there were 47,610 recorded land contracts in Ohio. This doesn’t include unrecorded contracts. It argues, “Ohio should provide greater legal protections for land contract buyers, allowing seller financing to be restricted to terms that are fair, equitable and ethical.” 

For those who were able to get an actual mortgage, despite a legacy of redlining, some faced and are still facing inflated property taxes. 

Property Taxes 

In 1973 the U.S. government found “a systematic pattern of overassessment in low-income African American neighborhoods, with corresponding underassessment in white middle-class neighborhoods.” 

The problem still exists today, according to a 2020 study. It found that Black and Hispanic property owners have a 10-13-percent higher tax burden relative to white owners. This Enterprise blog reports households of color are paying more relative to their housing value as compared to their white neighbors. 

Rothstein reports in cities like Cleveland “African Americans are still more likely than whites to lose homes through tax-lien repossessions.” 

You can see how devaluation is affecting Black neighborhoods all over the country, including Cincinnati and Dayton with this Brookings interactive map. 

This 2018 data from Brookings does not take into account the recent county re-appraisals that increased property values an average of 28-percent in Hamilton County, and 25-percent for Butler and Montgomery Counties this year. Some residents complained they would have trouble paying their property taxes and could lose their house.

Rothstein says local governments need to reform the tax lien process and activists say we need to recruit more minorities to do appraisals. 

How do we undo segregation?  

The National Association of Realtors says the home-ownership rate among African Americans is 43-percent, compared to 72-percent for whites. That’s the biggest gap in a decade.  

In Hamilton County the homeownership rate for Black families was 34-percent in 2022 and for white households was 70-percent, according to the Federal Reserve Bank. In Montgomery County for 2022 the Black homeownership rate was just 42-percent. 

Richard Rothstein and his daughter, housing policy expert Leah Rothstein, wrote a follow-up book to The Color of Law, titled Just Action. 

It seeks to challenge segregation, giving concerned citizens and community leaders a blueprint for change. 

Here are some of their ideas. 

Organize and Activate 

Because “there is no political will for the federal government to…fix this problem (segregation)…there are many things that people can do in their own local communities,” Richard Rothstein tells Brick by Brick. 

He says twenty-million Americans participated in the Black Lives Matter demonstrations in 2020 from all backgrounds. “Then they went home and put Black Lives Matter signs on their lawns perhaps and didn’t do anything further to make Black Lives Matter,” maybe because “they didn’t know what to do to make their vision a reality.” 

The Rothsteins advocate developing relationships to create change. Here’s an example in their newsletter JustAction.substack.com where one community stopped a NIMBY (not in my backyard) effort to block a new affordable housing development. To build affordable housing on a piece of property it owned, a school district mobilized people. “They went door to door and talked to neighbors who understood that blocking development hurt all of them.” 

Leah Rothstein writes, “The affluent town of Menlo Park, CA-where Google was founded, Meta, formerly Facebook, has its headquarters, and the median home price is $2 million-is a test case for how communities can win when it comes to creating affordable housing and righting the wrongs of segregation.” 

She says this is a story of “unyielding grassroots activism,” and other communities can do the same to “redress segregation.” 

Create racially and economically diverse communities 

In Just Action, the Rothsteins write, “A healthy community that can sustain a common national identity is one where affluent, middle-class, working class, and low-income families of all races and ethnicities have access to the same resources and whose children attend the same schools. This should be the aspiration of civil rights activists.” 

They point to one project from a Boston-based housing development firm, the Community Builders. It’s Avondale Town Center in Cincinnati

“Located in a low-income neighborhood, it attracts renters who are racially, ethnically and economically diverse, in part because it’s within walking distance of hospitals that employ healthcare workers at many wage levels.” 

Community Builders told HousingFinance.com “This is a community where people are proud to live in but hasn’t had quality housing options for some time. By providing mixed-income housing, we give an opportunity for people who want to live here because it’s a convenient, historic, and a vibrant African-American community.” 

The $46 million development was a public-private partnership including low-income housing tax credits, Department of Housing and Urban Development Choice Neighborhoods, funds, City of Cincinnati proceeds, tax abatements and institutional investments. 

Community Builders partnered with the Avondale Development Corporation and the Avondale Coalition of Churches. 

And there’s now a new grocery store in the Avondale Town Center, the first in the neighborhood in decades. The Country Meat Co. Market Place has opened its doors. Tennel and Chanel Bryant also own and operate The Country Meat Co. at Findlay Market. 

Develop Land Trusts 

Non-profit trusts acquire land through donations, fundraising and subsidies to develop housing for buyers at a below-market price. The way they do that is to retain ownership of the land but sell the house at an affordable price. The homeowner can only sell the house at a set rate to keep it affordable for the next person. 

Did you know Cincinnati was the first U.S. city to have a land trust in an urban neighborhood? The Community Land Cooperative of Cincinnati owns five homes in the West End. 

In the Brick by Brick interview with the Rothsteins, they point to The Durham Land Trust

It started thirty years ago with two vacant properties. The Durham Land Trust now manages nearly 300 permanently affordable homes in eight Durham, North Carolina neighborhoods. The Rothsteins call it “a fabulous model, with over 300 communities around the country that have land trusts.” 

Yellow Springs follows the community land trust model. Yellow Springs Home, Inc. was founded in 1998 with a mission of strengthening community and diversity through permanently affordable and sustainable housing. “In recent decades, Yellow Springs has become a premier place to live….at the same time, nearly half of all renters are housing cost burdened,” the trust says on its website.  

Yellow Springs Home, Inc now has 26 for-sale homes and 14 rentals in its portfolio and estimates it has provided more than $7 million in local economic development. 

We are making progress 

Leah Rothstein says, “I think the tipping point in taking on these issues is starting to develop relationships across races and with people from other parts of town from where you live.” 

She explains, “It’s very impactful when you start to develop these cross-race relationships and then start to learn about the history of your community and how it came to be segregated.” 

According to Richard Rothstein, “There are so many different areas in which racial segregation can be challenged at a local level.” He says, “The opportunity is to challenge it, to narrow it, to chip away at it vary from place to place.” 

This includes not only undoing years of segregation but starting to build generational wealth. Cincinnati Councilmember Reggie Harris told Brick by Brick, “Duplexes, triplexes are really good tools for homeownership.” He says one way Black and Brown communities can do that is through multigenerational living. Harris gives the example of a sibling and his or her family living in one section of the house, and another sibling and a grandparent in another. The owner can build equity and profit.

The Rothsteins say “small victories will give people encouragement for larger victories.” 

Solution Sidebar interviews are a part of the Brick by Brick series. In these episodes, which we’ll release in the same podcast feed as our typical episodes, we’ll be going more in-depth with our interviewees, who range from regional ‘solutionaries’ and thought-leaders to national authors, professional stakeholders, and more.

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A white woman in her 50's with shoulder-length brown hair and blue eyes wearing a maroon leather jacket stands on a neighborhood street.

Ann Thompson – Host, Producer

Over the last thirty years in Cincinnati, Ann Thompson has brought a wealth of knowledge and expertise to her reporting. She has reported and anchored for WVXU, WKRC, WCKY, WHIO-TV and Metro Networks and freelanced for NPR, CBS and ABC Radio. Her work has been recognized by the Associated Press and she has won awards from the Association of Women in Communications and the Alliance for Women in Media. She is a former News Director and Operations Manager. Ann has reported from India, Japan, South Korea, Germany and Belgium as part of fellowships. Ann thinks of the Brick by Brick project as “journalism for good.” She serves as host and producer. Ann lives in Anderson Township with her husband Scott. They have two boys. Jake graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2022 and Kurt attends West Point.