Real Estate News

How racism kept black Tacomans from buying houses for decades

How a government program blocked black people from buying homes

The Federal government commissioned maps in the 1930s that pointed to areas considered safe bets for home loans. The most desirable neighborhoods were exclusively white. Tacoma had its map.
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The Federal government commissioned maps in the 1930s that pointed to areas considered safe bets for home loans. The most desirable neighborhoods were exclusively white. Tacoma had its map.

Honorably discharged after serving in the Korean War, the young man looked to settle down in Tacoma with his wife.

If only they could convince someone to show them a home.

If they got to a house first, the real estate agent would leave upon seeing them.

They learned to park down the street and wait for the agent to approach the house. Then they’d make their move: Drive up and catch him between his car and the front door of the house so he couldn’t leave.

But even that hadn’t landed them a home.

The ex-soldier was Harold Moss, who one day would become the first black mayor of Tacoma and president of the Tacoma NAACP. His then wife, Bil Moss, years later would become the first executive director of Planned Parenthood of Pierce County.

But in the 1950s they were just another black couple fighting discrimination in an uphill battle to buy a home in Tacoma.

“We felt blackballed,” Bil Moss said in a recent interview.

Like many African Americans across the nation, the Mosses were victims of redlining.

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Harold Moss has been heavily involved in Tacoma’s civic life for over five decades, including as the city’s first black mayor. In the 1950s, he was another African-American man facing discrimination when he tried to buy a home. Peter Haley phaley@thenewstribune.com

Under the practice from decades past, banks typically lent only to white people in certain neighborhoods. Immigrants and people of color, as well as many who lived near them, were largely excluded from the housing market and denied the equity, financial security and generational wealth that homeownership provides.

On maps that lenders and real estate agents used, some neighborhoods were “redlined” — literally marked in red — to designate them as the city’s least safe housing investments. Neighborhoods with apartment buildings, widely varying construction styles or a general run-down appearance were seen as poor returns.

But in the eyes of many of the country’s bankers, nothing downgraded an otherwise acceptable neighborhood like the presence of black families, records from the time show over and over again.

“Nativism and racism is at the heart of the grading and the theory behind the grading,” said Robert Nelson, a graduate of University of Puget Sound and director of the digital scholarship lab with the University of Richmond.

Codifying racism

The maps came out the Great Depression.

In the early 1930s, the federal government sought to encourage homeownership by giving middle and working-class families access to long-term loans, said LaDale Winling, assistant professor of history at Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

Because the feds backed the loans, Winling said, “with that guarantee comes the prospect that the federal government may be on the hook for that mortgage and that house. They may have to foreclose and resell.”

To show which neighborhoods in cities were safe investments and which were not, the government set up the Home Owners Loan Corp. in 1933. The agency created what became the redline maps.

Decades later researchers discovered dozens of redline maps in the National Archives at College Park, Maryland. They have been digitized and put online by a collaborative project called Mapping Inequality, led by Nelson and Winling.

Tacoma’s map is among them, showing redlined neighborhoods in the Hilltop, McKinley Hill and South Tacoma neighborhoods.

The neighborhoods continue to bear the marks of a racist past.

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A condemned house near the Hilltop neighborhood of Tacoma. The legacy of the redlining maps, commissioned by the federal government to boost homeownership after the Great Depression, can be seen in some of the city’s neighborhoods today. David Montesino dmontesino@thenewstribune.com

U.S. Census data show people living in formerly redlined neighborhoods earn far less, are less likely to have college degrees and are far less likely to own homes, whose value is large part of a family’s financial worth. Federal data show white families today have nearly 10 times the net worth of black families.

Two Census tracts in Tacoma illustrate these disparities — a top-rated tract in the North End and a “hazardous” tract on the Hilltop:

In the North End neighborhood, the median household income is nearly $91,000 a year. In the Hilltop tract, it’s $17,100.

About 80 percent of the homes in the North End community are occupied by their owners, compared to about 5 percent on the Hilltop.

Half of the North End residents over age 25 have completed a college degree. On the Hilltop, it’s 10 percent.

Those who live in areas once deemed “hazardous” can have life expectancies decades lower than those in what were considered the “best” neighborhoods, data from the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department show.

Again the two tracts show stark differences. Babies born into North End families are forecast to live more than a decade longer — into their 80s — than those born to families who live on the Hilltop.

Another lingering effect of redlining is the level of homeownership by African Americans.

At the dawn of the civil rights movement, about 40 percent of black families in the United States owned their homes. Decades later that figure is largely unchanged, whereas about 70 percent of white families own their homes today, according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Many African Americans and other people of color have no family members who have ever bought a home and didn’t grow up talking about owning one, said University Place real estate agent Carlos Watson.

“Mentally they don’t think they can own a home,” said Watson, who was among the first generation of his African-American family to own a home. “They think, ‘All I can ever do is rent. All my parents did is rent.”

After getting his real estate license two years ago, Watson has taught first-time buyers, many of them people of color, what it takes to buy a home.

Often, their parents or grandparents never owned a home, he said.

“I don’t know if it’s something that’s been programmed in their minds,” he said of his students. “I’ll ask them, and they say, ‘Well, I never really thought about it.’ ”

Though redlining has been illegal for decades, racism in real estate continues in more subtle patterns.

Today, some agents show black families like hers homes only in certain neighborhoods in a practice called “steering,” said Linda Hurley Ishem, an urban studies senior lecturer at University of Washington Tacoma. She’s studied the effects of redlining in the Puget Sound area.

“Most faculty members on this campus, even administrators, live on the North End,” she said. “When a new faculty member of color comes to the area, they are shown, not the North End. They are shown University Place and Fircrest, and Northeast Tacoma.

“It may be the Realtor feels the buyer will be more comfortable where there is a neighborhood with more diversity, I don’t know.”

‘Who sent you here?’

For decades after the redline maps were created, bankers, landowners, real estate agents and neighbors worked together to decide who got loans or who could move to their neighborhoods.

The Mosses ran head-on into that attitude.

To overcome it, they sometimes had to resort to creative tactics to even meet with a real estate agent in hopes of seeing a home they might buy.

“When you called a real estate office, you used what I call your ‘white voice,’ ” Harold Moss said, sharing his strategy for roping a white real estate agent into showing a home.

If the couple managed to get inside a house, he said, the owners’ excuses would fly: “They would hate me if I sold this house to a Negro,” or, “I don’t think you could get a loan.”

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Harold Moss, center, takes the oath of office on Oct. 13, 1970, after being appointed to the Tacoma City Council. He was elected to the position in 1971 and served until 1973. Richards Studio Collection Tacoma Public Library

One memorable encounter happened in South Tacoma. A minister and his wife were moving out of state and looking to sell their home. It was beautiful, Bil Moss recalled, and furnished.

Her and Harold Moss’ accounts of what happened differ slightly. It’s been more than 60 years, after all. But both agree they met with neighbors in hopes of winning them over so the minister then would agree to sell them the house.

The first neighbor didn’t answer the door, they said, even though they could see her watching from inside the home.

At the next house the Mosses were invited inside.

“All of a sudden the front door opened and the back door opened, and in came this horde of people,” Bil Moss said. “And they began to tell us ‘no’.”

“If we moved here, they couldn’t sell their property,” she said they were told.

Then came a flood of accusations from the white residents, Harold Moss recalled.

“Who sent you here? Why don’t you people go where you’re wanted? You’re going to bring other black people here and they’re going to ruin our neighborhood.”

“I cried, because it was my first time experiencing something like that,” Bil Moss said, the pain evident in her voice even decades later. “We had more than the down payment. …

“You’ve been taught all your life, if you keep yourself clean and be a nice person, people will respect you. It was a real disappointment.”

The Mosses were not alone in facing discrimination in finding a place to live. Even renting could be hard.

Freddie Mae Barnett, a long-time member of Tacoma’s Colored Women’s Club, found that out when her husband was stationed at Fort Lewis in the 1950s. They were turned away from more than half a dozen homes before they found a place to live, she said.

Tom Dixon, a founder of the Tacoma-Pierce County Black Collective, said he couldn’t find a place to rent when he moved here in the early 1960s when stationed with the Air Force.

Dressed in his military uniform, he rang the doorbell of one residence.

“She says, ‘I’m sorry, sergeant, my husband and I have found someone to rent the apartment,’ and that was not true,” Dixon said.

Later, he bought a home from a black owner.

“It took some effort but I was able to succeed in buying that house in a mixed neighborhood,” Dixon said.

Color coded

To create the redline maps, the federal government contracted with local real estate appraisers, mortgage lenders and developers in nearly 250 cities, including Tacoma, said Winling of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute.

The maps divided neighborhoods into four grades:

Green: The most desirable for investment. The description from federal documents states the neighborhoods had development potential and were in well-planned areas of a city. A top-tier neighborhood in Tacoma from the late 1930s included a part of the North End with the Weyerhaeuser Mansion on North Stevens Street.

Blue: Considered “still desirable” and completely developed. “They are like a 1935 automobile, still good but not what the people are buying today who can afford a new one,” according to one summary of the color guide.

The Proctor District is listed, partly because of a lack of deed restrictions preventing apartment buildings and the presence of some gravel rather than paved roads.

Yellow: Included “Jerry” built homes, insufficient utilities or poorly maintained properties. Deed restrictions that prevent multifamily housing are not present, homes are poorly maintained and an “infiltration of a lower-grade population” lives there.

The descriptions often refer to a “working man’s district” in many neighborhoods of this grade.

Distance from the city center was seen as detrimental. University Place was described as one such neighborhood. Homes there were built on 1.5-acre lots. “This is a sustenance homestead area, and is outstanding for its production of tomatoes,” according to the description.

Red: Considered “hazardous” for investment. Red areas contain “undesirable population,” with a low percentage of homeownership. It was hard, if not impossible, to get a home loan in a “hazardous” district.

redlining tacoma 03
A color-coded map commissioned by the federal government in 1930s helped guide homebuyers and banks to Tacoma’s most desirable neighborhoods. Areas in green and blue indicated the most desirable locations, which were almost exclusively white. Neighborhoods shaded in red were considered “hazardous” for investment because they contained an “undesirable population” with a low percentage of homeownership. It was hard, if not impossible, to get a home loan in a “hazardous” district. Courtesy Home Owners Loan Corp.

Tale of two neighborhoods

Often the only factor that placed a neighborhood into the “hazardous” category was the presence of a single home owned by a black family, Winling said.

Case in point: A few square blocks of the North End were deemed the lowest grade, even though it otherwise was physically identical to a blue-ranked neighborhood that surrounded it on three sides.

The area description explains why:

“Three highly respected Negro families own homes and live in the middle block of this area facing Verde Street. While very much above the average of their race, it is quite generally recognized by Realtors that their presence seriously detracts from the desirability of their immediate neighborhood.”

The language in Tacoma’s maps shocked Nelson.

“I was somewhat taken aback and surprised at how explicit that is,” said Nelson, who had looked at redline maps from all over the country. “It’s not subtext you have to interpret.

“These are accomplished, professional families, and yet their race is a reason for viewing this area that is hazardous to provide mortgages to.”

When the maps were created, black residents made up about half of 1 percent of Tacoma’s roughly 109,000 residents. Today that population nears 10 percent of Tacoma’s 211,000 people, according to Census figures.

“It’s interesting that less than 1 percent of the population in Tacoma was African American,” Nelson said. “How much those few families play in those area descriptions is an indication of how fixated they were on race. It’s remarkable.”

Coded language in neighborhood descriptions were sprinkled throughout the documents. Neighborhoods with “homogenous populations” — code for all-white communities that prevented minorities from living there — were viewed as safe investments.

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Neighborhoods with “heterogeneous” populations — including Italians, African Americans or other people of color — or with apartment construction were considered declining or hazardous.

These new rules encouraged developers to include covenants for new neighborhoods to boost their value. Rules that prevented multifamily development were seen as a boon to those neighborhoods because they restricted the supply of housing, which drove up home values.

When the maps were drawn in the 1930s, parts of Tacoma were still undeveloped. In 1944, a local developer planned out the Narrowmoor subdivision in the city’s West End. The sweeping views of Puget Sound, the Olympics and the Tacoma Narrows bridges have helped propel property values to about one-and-a-half times the city median, recent data show.

The neighborhood was built with segregation in mind, which bankers at the time thought protected property values.

The covenants stated, in part: “No part or parcel of land … shall be rented or leased to or used or occupied, in whole or in part, by any person of the African or Asiatic descent, nor by any person not of the white or Caucasian race, other than domestic servants domiciled with an owner or tenant and living in their home.”

Nancy and Mike Fleming bought one of these homes in the mid-1980s. She said they had no idea the land contained a racially restrictive covenant until they had already signed the papers to buy.

Their real estate agent slipped the covenants to them with an “oh, by the way,” she said.

“I said, ‘You have got to be kidding me,’ ” she recalled. “I certainly wasn’t happy about it, I can tell you that. … It just would be nice if it wasn’t in there.”

Narrowmoor’s covenants — still present but unenforceable — were not an anomaly. Throughout the country, planners and landowners took guidance from redline maps and incorporated racially restrictive covenants into neighborhoods.

“Whites did not want to live near blacks,” Winling said. “This is not something they would be too ashamed of. This was fairly broadly accepted.”

In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that such covenants were legally unenforceable.

Before that the restrictions affected federal mortgage lending for decades, Winling said, with loans for first-time homebuyers and those for military members through federal Department of Veterans Affairs.

The benefit, for active duty and veteran military members, was just what Harold Moss wanted to use to buy the couple’s first home. But nobody would sell them a house they wanted to buy, and banks in Tacoma and Seattle refused to lend them money.

“So we decided, to heck with buying a home,” he said.

Instead they built from the ground up.

Doing it themselves

For the Mosses, building their home was a months-long ordeal across two states to secure financing and contractors.

Many of their friends had similar trouble, so they bought lots and built their own houses.

The small community of friends cleared brush on each other’s property or crawled on their hands and knees through homes, hammering extra nails to secure floorboards so the floors wouldn’t squeak.

“You were networking all the time,” Harold Moss said. “Your friends would help you build. It was great fun.”

The Mosses eventually bought a vacant lot on Huson Drive. They’d sometimes drive to the property at night, Bil Moss said, to gaze upon this square parcel they now owned but that was not yet their home.

“We never set foot on the property until one of Harold’s friends wanted to see it,” she said.

When it came time to secure a construction loan the couple could not get a bank in Washington to take their business. Harold Moss visited bank after bank after bank. He said lenders would tell him black people don’t pay their bills or refuse to keep up their homes.

Eventually the couple convinced an Oregon bank to lend them the thousands they needed to build their home.

“You just keep trying and pushing until someone says we’re interested,” Harold Moss said.

Decades later, he said he can see some progress on Tacoma’s streets. Black people live in neighborhoods where he was once told he could never buy.

But anger made fresh by distant memories strained his voice.

“In the Pacific Northwest,” the former mayor said, “people had the notion that they were better than the folks in the South … that we are so far from slavery that we didn’t have these problems.

“Yes we did.”

Kate Martin: @katereports
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