Your Views: Racism and housing

Your Views: Racism and housing
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To the editor:

I am writing in response to a letter in the Feb. 4 Alexandria Times, “False narrative on ADUs.” In this letter I was accused of inserting race into a discussion of zoning. In fact, we live in a racially segregated society. Race and racism are intertwined with housing policy.

“The Problem We All Live With” is one of Norman Rockwell’s most famous paintings. The image of Ruby Bridges being escorted by Federal Marshalls into a newly integrated school is where many think racial segregation ends. Yet in thinking of your neighbors, where is the closest African American family to your home?

At the suggestion of a colleague on the Alexandria Housing Affordability Advisory Committee, I read Richard Rothstein’s book, “The Color of Law.” His preface lays bare the problem we continue to live with. “Racial segregation in housing was not merely a project of southerners in the former slaveholding Confederacy. It was a nationwide project of the federal government in the twentieth century, designed and implemented by its most liberal leaders.”

In the 1950s, our city leaders explicitly expanded segregation. They zoned the recently annexed West End to only allow apartment complexes on arterial roads while reserving the quiet residential streets exclusively for single-family homes. Few African Americans were able to purchase homes until the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act. In fact, 98% of federal-backed home loans went to white people before 1968. By then, most African American families were priced out of most single-family home neighborhoods.

Admitting we have a problem is the first step toward addressing racial segregation in housing. I was heartened that City Council unanimously adopted a racial and social equity resolution which acknowledged racial segregation in housing. Later the same day, Council passed an accessory dwelling unit ordinance by a vote of 6 to 1, allowing a modicum of new housing into exclusive single-family home neighborhoods.

During the public hearing I opposed owner-occupancy requirements that discourage homeowners from building ADUs. I cited Arlington County, where only one of 82 ADU permits went to an African American family. Fortunately, most cities are removing this requirement, citing racial disparities and lack of ADU construction. I hope we will do so as well.

Given that context, I was surprised that one of my colleagues from AHAAC accused me of creating racial division and being uncivil by merely bringing up racial segregation in housing. To quote Robin DiAngelo’s book “White Fragility,” “While it isn’t comfortable for most whites to talk about racism, we must do so if we want to challenge – rather than protect – racism.” I hope we are up for that challenge.

-Zack DesJardins, Alexandria