University of Utah discusses racialization of homeownership on President Biden’s first day

Story by SUNWHEE MIKE PARK

MLK Day 2021 arrived in a timely manner – just two days before the inauguration of President Joe Biden. The transition marked a political shift that many Americans saw as synonymous with the return to progressive social attitudes and the renewed start of efforts at racial unity after four tumultuous years under the previous presidential administration.

In celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s lasting legacy, the University of Utah’s Department of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion hosted a series of events throughout the week of Jan. 18, aptly titled “Good Trouble.” Those words were uttered by John Lewis, the Georgia congressman and civil-rights icon who died in 2020.

One event during the week held particular significance: a virtual seminar on the topic of redlining. This practice was exercised by American banks and federal bodies until the mid-20th century to exclude minority families in underprivileged neighborhoods from receiving mortgages or homeowner loans. Areas were defined by red lines on maps, hence the term “redlining.”

While the practice has been outlawed for over half a century in the United States, the vestiges of this discriminatory act are still widely visible to this day.

The event, “Reframing the Conversation: Good Trouble & the Red Line,” was held via Zoom on Jan. 20, the day of Biden’s inauguration. Afterward, he signed multiple executive orders. One extended the CDC’s federal eviction moratorium to allow nearly 40 million Americans to keep their homes until late March, according to the Washington Post. Many of the homeowners that the order impacts are minorities who reside in redlined regions, the Aspen Institute reports.

The virtual seminar introduced a panel of leaders from within the Salt Lake City community: Ciriac Alvarez Valle, a recent graduate of the U and policy analyst at Voices for Utah Children; Ashley Cleveland, a board member for Utah’s Outdoor Recreation Advisory Committee and nonprofit Curly Me; Fatima Dirie, policy advisor for the Mayor’s Office of New Americans; and Franci Taylor, director of the U’s American Indian Resource Center. The conversation was moderated by Jennifer Mayer-Glenn, director of University Neighborhood Partners.

Mayer-Glenn posed a series of prepared questions which covered a range of topics — from the implicit ways redlining practices remain today to their long-term effects in modern American society. Some panelists shared personal stories about the challenges they have faced in homeownership as Black and Indigenous women of color.

“Redlining went from legal to insidiously hidden,” Taylor said about the ways discrimination can still be seen in homeownership today. (The Fair Housing Act banned the practice in 1968, according to the Department of Housing and Urban Development website.)  She said it is painfully obvious when noting how many exits and entrances go in and out of Salt Lake City’s minority-rich, lower-income west side compared with the whiter, richer east side. Taylor said this was an intentional design implemented by the government to minimize access into wealthier Salt Lake City neighborhoods.

Other panelists discussed how redlining affects their personal lives. Cleveland, a new mother, explained that redlined minority neighborhoods pose serious health issues, especially to children and pregnant women. Their proximity to freeways causes rampant asthma, and a lack of healthy food options in these “food deserts” leads to high numbers of patients with diabetes and hypertension. But minority families are unable to escape these conditions because of the continued effects of redlining today, Cleveland said, expressing how difficult it is for her and her daughter to live healthily.

The seminar, however, was not restricted to a gloomy discussion about how minority groups have been, and still are, disenfranchised by redlining practices. The latter half of the event breathed an air of hopefulness to an otherwise dismal topic, as panelists were asked how they fight to overcome discriminatory challenges, and how American society as a whole can move forward.

Valle, the youngest panelist, suggested the equal dispersion of resources to all communities, regardless of their populations’ racial backgrounds or financial statuses in order to ensure their growth. She explained that constant participation in community activities, especially by the younger generation including students, would gradually help to raise redlined neighborhoods out of a continuous cycle of poverty and neglect.

Later in the discussion, in a moment undeniably evocative of King and Lewis during the Civil Rights Movement era, Taylor said the fight against discrimination and hatred must be taken on as a daily chore. The key, she said, lies in refusing to tolerate discrimination nor embracing the fear that comes with it each day.

In a separate email interview with Mayer-Glenn, she explained that conversations like these play an important role in informing communities about how certain laws and policies are enacted to promote discrimination. When people become educated about structural racism and biases in their communities, she said, they can then take part in “good trouble” by voting for representatives who will fight to eliminate inequality and racial disparities.

As the event neared its end, it was clear that the hour-long conversation represented a much larger phenomenon occurring at that very moment: America ushering in a new administration with the dire hope of overcoming its deep and painful racial divisions. Panelists and moderator of the event alike seemed to be ardently optimistic as the conversation came to a close.

Valle, the young panelist, quoted the words of Lewis himself as the mantra for her work, “If not us, then who? If not now, then when?”