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Baltimore has long, sad history of housing bias

As damning as the report on Baltimore's racist housing discrimination is, it cannot possibly capture the truth of what really happened (“Report shows investment in Baltimore African-American neighborhoods hasn’t overcome racist policies of the past,” Feb. 7). America's history of housing discrimination is long, and Baltimore leads all other cities.

Early in the 20th century, the Baltimore City Council passed a local law which effectively barred black people from living on any block which was occupied by whites. The federal government one-upped the city of Baltimore years later. One of the most heinous of these policies made home ownership accessible to white people by guaranteeing their loans, with the FHA explicitly refusing to back loans to black people or even other people who lived near black people.

I grew up in Northwest Baltimore. My father, a World War II veteran who had started his own dry cleaning and real estate businesses when he came home from Europe, purchased a home in a Northwest Baltimore neighborhood now called Ashburton. We were the first African-American family on our block. One of my first "duties" in life was to be a Sabbath goy for our Jewish neighbors. One by one, they moved out. They were replaced by black professionals. Years later, we leaned that the broker who sold the house to my dad had actually created a panic among the white homeowners, telling them that if more blacks moved in, the value of their homes would drop and he advised them to sell quickly. The broker then used a "straw man" purchaser to buy the houses at a low panic price and subsequently sold the house to a black doctor, lawyer or entrepreneur, who paid a premium price to move into a "newly opened" neighborhood.

The scheme, known as blockbusting, was uncovered years after it happened. Even more disturbing than the blockbusting scheme that allowed me to grow up in a great neighborhood was the effect of the federal government's policy of allowing "redlining,” the policy that allowed lenders, builders, developers and sellers to discriminate against buyers of color. Deeds included a restrictive covenant that limited to whom you could sell a house. They typically read, "This property could not be conveyed to any persons of the Negro race.”

Covenants run with a property. When I finished law school and purchased a home in the Riverdale area of New York, I did the closing myself. When all of the parties required for the closing gathered at a bank office, we read the deed together. As we did so, the seller's attorney turned red. He had come to the section that said that a black person like me could not buy the beautiful 1922 colonial that we had fallen in love with. Before he could say anything, I said, "let's just cross it out, initial it and move on.” The house, which had only been owned by two families since it was built, had never been sold to an African-American.

The greatest inter-generational transfer of wealth in the history of America took place in the 20th century, and African-American families in Baltimore were forced to the sidelines. A vet like my dad, or an African-American steelworker at Sparrows Point like my Uncle Percy, did well with respect to earning power, but they were limited in where they could purchase homes. A white vet or steel worker with the same earning power may have purchased a home on York Road. An African-American with the same income was limited to certain neighborhoods like Walbrook or Sandtown. The York Road house appreciated in value tremendously. The house in Walbrook or Sandtown is boarded up like most of the houses on the same block.

Blacks were waging a Sisyphean fight against laws that handicapped them nearly as much as the institution of slavery itself.

Roland Nicholson Jr., Baltimore

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