History of housing discrimination

Updated: Apr 16



Home, whether it’s a single-family, a unit in a multi-family home, or an apartment in a large complex, connects us to our communities.

These communities consist of our neighbors, the businesses we frequent, the schools our children attend, our places of worship, and so much more. And whether you are aware of it or not, the concept of “home” in Massachusetts often varies widely, according to race, culture, economic status, etc.

Where we live determines the quality of our children’s education, our access to jobs, and aspects of our health and well-being. And in Massachusetts, as in the rest of the country, racial discrimination has had a profound impact on where people of color live.

Discriminatory practices were once written into housing laws and regulations, creating unequal access to opportunity. Today the laws have changed, but the legacy of institutionalized discrimination continues to have a profound effect. Beginning in the mid-1920s, racially restrictive covenants were a common way to bar people of color from buying, renting, or otherwise occupying a piece of property in a white community. These private covenants were developed after the Supreme Court declared municipally mandated racial zoning unconstitutional, and they were supported by real estate boards and neighborhood associations.

The practice of using racial covenants became so socially acceptable that in “1937 a leading magazine of nationwide circulation awarded 10 communities a ‘shield of honor’ for an umbrella of restrictions against the ‘wrong kind of people’.(1)

”Probably the most damaging policies (which have since improved) originated with the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), created in 1934. The FHA revolutionized home ownership by creating our current financial mortgaging system. But the strict lending standards comprising the FHA’s Underwriting Handbook determined which properties were eligible for loans. These standards were codified by maps of different colors; areas color coded in red were considered the worst investments, hence the term redlining.

Redlining is the practice of denying or limiting financial services to certain neighborhoods based on racial or ethnic composition without regard to the residents’ qualifications or creditworthiness, and it paved the way for long-term segregation and discrimination in lending.More than 20 years before the Federal Government would follow suit, Massachusetts passed Chapter 151B, the Massachusetts Fair Housing Law, which prohibited discrimination based on race, color, national origin, ancestry and religious creed.It took until 1968 for Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act to make discriminatory housing practices illegal across the country.

The Fair Housing Act, as Title VIII is known, prohibits discrimination by direct providers of housing (landlords and real estate companies) as well as other entities like municipalities, banks and other lending institutions, and homeowner insurance companies. Advertising, zoning practices, and new construction design is also addressed. As a result of this legislation, the practices of redlining and the writing of racially restrictive covenants into deeds were deemed illegal. The Massachusetts Coalition Against Segregation reports that in addition to redlining, the development of the suburbs and Route 128 greatly exacerbated problems of housing inequality in the Boston Area. In the early 1960s, a large influx of African Americans to Boston coincided with the development of Boston’s business districts without any increase in housing. As whites moved out to suburbs, blacks remained in the city.

By 1970, all of the suburban towns, with the exception of Cambridge, were 98% white. A more recent study by the Harvard Civil Rights Project showed that majority of people of color are still concentrated in only 7 out of 126 communities in greater Boston. As whites moved out to the suburbs, zoning regulations—many of which are still in use today—were created to restrict access to housing. These regulations have a disparate impact on African Americans and Latinos because they limit affordability and the number of rental multifamily housing opportunities.

Currently, even when they are in the same income bracket as whites, minorities in the Boston region are turned down for mortgages at a higher rate and live in substantially less well-off neighborhoods, according to a study by the Metropolitan Area Planning Council in Boston. The average white family earning $78,000 a year in metro Boston lives in a neighborhood where the median household income is $72,400 a year, while the average black household earning $78,000 a year lives in an area where the median is $51,100 a year.(2)

Want to learn more? Read the short-and-fabulous book The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein, or listen to an episode of the popular radio program This American Life called House Rules.

The following are places you can visit, talks you can attend, and actions you can take to further embrace the importance of Black History in all our lives:

Walk the Black Heritage Trail that runs all throughout the Boston area. You can follow in the footsteps of Frederick Douglass and many other important black voices of our past. Take your kids to the Children’s Museum. They have a permanent exhibit called Boston Black, which focuses on African American music, dance and beauty. Eat at a black-owned restaurant, and use the #BostonBlackRestaurantChallenge when you post pics of your meal. Attend a talk by Richard Rothstein, author of the above-mentioned book The Color of Law on March 27. Team member Rebecca will be there. Reserve your $15 seat at EventBrite.

If you’re white and want to learn more about racial justice, consider taking the White People Challenging Racism course. Offered in several Greater Boston Communities, these workshops aim to move “from talk to action.” The course is engaging, supportive, and empowering.

We hope you have learned something new today, and are inspired to learn even more. By celebrating Black History month, we acknowledge the ideas, gifts and sacrifices made by people of color in Massachusetts.

(1). “Understanding Fair Housing,” U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Clearinghouse Publication 42, February 1973.

(2). Johnston, Katie. “Around Massachusetts, Racial Divides Persist.” The Boston Globe, 17 Apr. 2017


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