Leah Rothstein, co-author of “Just Action,” greets guests at her lecture and book signing in Indianapolis. (Photo by Marilyn Odendahl)

By Marilyn Odendahl

The Indiana Citizen

August 4, 2023

Bringing an end to the residential segregation that has corralled African Americans into deteriorating neighborhoods that are damaging their health and economic well-being is going to take more than middle- and upper-income households planting Black Lives Matter signs in their front yards.

“We need a new, activated civil rights movement around the country,” said Leah Rothstein, a California-based community organizer and public policy expert. “This movement needs to start locally.”

Rothstein and her father, Richard Rothstein, co-authored the 2023 book, “Just Action,” and was in Indianapolis recently for a special event hosted by the Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana. Speaking to a sizable crowd in the Toby at Newfields, Rothstein outlined different things community groups can do to redress what she and her father call “residential apartheid.”

“Just Action” is the follow-up to Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law,” which exposed the notion of de facto segregation as a myth. Many believe the racial separation seen in cities and towns across the country is a reflection of people wanting to live around others who look like them. However, the elder Rothstein highlighted government policies that incentivized and sometimes required housing developers, real estate agents and banks to block African Americans from the homeownership opportunities and subsidies offered to white families.

After his book was published in 2017, Richard Rothstein was asked repeatedly by people who read it and attended his talks, “What can we do about it now”?  So he turned to his daughter to help provide some answers.

Leah Rothstein is frank that the work to end residential segregation will be very hard and met with strong opposition. Moreover, since the federal government has been one of the major drivers of segregation, real change must involve new policies and investments implemented at the federal level.

However, she emphasized, local groups can lay the foundation. A lot of policies and programs enacted by state and local governments perpetuated segregation. Advocating for changing those policies can bring improvements to local communities as well as build the political will, nationally, to make bold advances.

“When we think of segregation as a de facto occurrence, it doesn’t give us anything to do to change it,” Rothstein told the Indianapolis audience. “We think that something that happened by accident can only unhappen by accident. Once we start to reckon with the true history of how government policy intentionally created segregation, … that helps us do that intentional action that can do something to challenge and redress it.”

Local problem, local solutions

Before Rothstein spoke, the Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana gave a PowerPoint presentation that showed the city of Indianapolis and the state continue to be marred by residential segregation and housing policies that hurt homeowners and tenants.

“Indiana has an affordability, substandard housing, eviction, and discrimination housing problem,” Amy Nelson, executive director of FHCCI, told the audience.

From 1970 through 2019, homeownership in Marion County has remained at 64% among white households but declined from 49% to 34% among African American families.

Currently, renters comprise 45% of Marion County’s occupied households with the average monthly rent has escalating since the pandemic, reaching $1,126 by fall 2022. While rents have skyrocketed, wages in Marion County have increased just 4 – 5% annually, leaving families with less money to pay for their basic needs let alone save for a down payment on a house.

Nelson and Rothstein pointed out the housing problem extends beyond an address. People in segregated neighborhoods suffer more health problems because their neighborhoods were built in more polluted areas. They have less access to fresh food, and their children have poorer academic outcomes. Also, African American families in these neighborhoods pay higher rents and higher property taxes and, because they did not have the benefit of housing subsidies that were given to white families, their household wealth is just 5% of whites’ household wealth.

In “Just Action,” the Rothsteins distinguish the discrimination experienced by African Americans compared to other racial and ethnic groups. They argue the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow law are unique and require solutions that are specifically for African American households.

“Blurring such differences by grouping them together as ‘people of color’ impedes clear thinking about how to craft remedies for the distinct harms each group has suffered,” the Rothsteins write.

During the FHCCI presentation, the crowd groaned when they learned the families turning to the Indianapolis Housing Authority for assistance wait an average of five years to receive a Section 8 housing voucher. The dismay might have been a reflection of how overwhelmed community members can become when they attempt to redress housing discrimination.

Nevertheless, Rothstein maintained local residents have an array of levers they can pull to effect change. The strategies fall into two main categories – increasing investments in lower-income African American neighborhoods where the concentration of poverty is the direct result of government-sponsored segregation and opening exclusive, expensive, often predominately white suburban communities to diverse residents.

Investment strategies must be coupled with protections so longtime residents are not forced out by rising housing costs as the neighborhood gentrifies. Rent control, ordinances allowing eviction only for just-cause like nonpayment of rent and land trusts that make homeownership affordable to low-income community members can boost the wealth and stability of these neighborhoods.

Inclusionary zoning that mandates a portion of new housing be preserved as affordable for lower and moderate incomes can diversify exclusive and expensive neighborhoods. Rothstein said communities should not forget housing specifically for middle-income households because most African American families are in the income range where they do not qualify for housing assistance but cannot afford the market values in the higher-income sections of town.

For community groups to be effective, Rothstein said, they have to be biracial and multi-ethnic by drawing members from different neighborhoods. Residents have to make connections and build relationships with other residents they do not normally encounter.

Then the group should start working with an advocacy organization like FHCCI, Rothstein said. A nonprofit can help the group members set an agenda and teach them the skills to promote their ideas.

 Rothstein cautioned advances in civil rights always stir opposition but from the strides community groups are making around the country, she sees reason for optimism.

“We believe that there’s more support out there than we think,” Rothstein said. “We just have to find it and talk to our neighbors and start to build that support and build those groups in our communities that can start to oppose the opposers. Because the opposition, they show up. They talk loudly at commission meetings and city council meetings.

“If supporters of these changes and supporters of housing and supporters of racial justice show up and are just as loud, then we’ll have a more fair fight.”

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