Data show that the state’s housing crisis is worse for black communities, with decades of systemic racism having led to significant barriers to building and retaining wealth.
California’s housing crisis is nothing new for many Black Californians. Systemic racism in public policy and the private housing market has long made finding a safe, stable and affordable home in the Golden State a more difficult prospect for its roughly 2.2 million Black residents than for white people.
The legacy of New Deal-era redlining — which deemed Black neighborhoods undesirable for federally-backed mortgages — is demonstrably visible not only where Black Californians live now but where gentrification and displacement pressures across the state are most acute.
Article 34, a still unrepealed clause in the state Constitution that requires local referendums before lower-income housing can be built in a California city, kept subsidized housing disproportionately utilized by Black and brown residents out of affluent, predominantly white communities for decades.
And while state leaders champion the strides the state has made toward diversity and equality relative to other parts of the country, evidence of overt racial bias in California’s housing market persists, including in its progressive coastal bastions. A home in a Black-majority part of the Bay Area is worth about $164,000 less than an equivalent home — same size, same quality of school system, same access to parks and other neighborhood amenities — in a neighborhood with very few Black people.
“When they say real estate is about location, location, location — it’s actually about race,” said Mary M. Lee, former deputy director for the equity-focused research and advocacy group PolicyLink and veteran advocate for fair housing policies in Los Angeles.
“It isn’t the South, it’s not Cleveland, but historically (Los Angeles) has been segregated,” said Lee. “And California — I like to say people live next to each other, not with each other.”
Over the past decade, the astronomical rise in California’s rent and home prices have added a new dimension to the housing crisis experienced by generations of Black Californians. Here’s what that looks like.
Over-represented in homeless counts
Overall, California has a relatively small Black population compared to other states. While non-Hispanic Black residents comprise more than 10% of highly-populated places like New York and Texas, they make up only about 5.5% of Californians, a proportion similar to the Black populations of Kansas or Wisconsin.
But of the more than 150,000 Californians who experience homelessness on any given night, nearly 30% are Black people. Several Bay Area regions, including San Francisco and Marin County, have some of the highest rates of Black homelessness in the country. No major California ethnic group is as over-represented in the state’s homeless count as Black people.
While the overrepresentation of Black people among the unhoused is a national trend, homeless Black Californians are more likely to be sleeping outside than unhoused Black residents of other states.
“The public sector, public systems are killing Black people everyday in broad daylight when they don’t house them,” said Lee.
A constellation of factors contribute to high rates of Black homelessness in California beyond the high cost of living: higher rates of poverty, lack of employment opportunities, and systemic disparities in California’s mental health and criminal justice systems.
But racial disparities are also prevalent in efforts to keep Black Californians off the streets once they’ve been rehoused. An analysis of Black homelessness in Los Angeles County found that while Black people were re-housed at the same rates as other ethnic groups, they were more likely to return to homelessness than any other demographic.
Housing cost burden falls on Black Californians
California is an extremely expensive state. More than 40% of its households fit the federal definition of “housing cost burdened,” with rent or mortgage payments eating up more than 30% of residents’ income.
On average, Black Californians see a larger chunk of their paychecks going to housing costs than any of the state’s other major demographic groups. Nearly 50% of Black Californians lived in households that were cost burdened in 2018; nearly a quarter paid more than 50% of their income towards housing costs.
Black households pushed to suburbs
When comparing how far apart Black, white and other ethnic groups live from one another, California cities are typically less segregated than their counterparts in the Northeast or Midwest. Most parts of the state have also seen improving rates of residential integration over the past half century, mirroring a national trend.
But part of the decline in California racial segregation is driven by gentrification and displacement pressures upon Black communities in urban cores.
It’s not just more affluent, younger, white Californians moving into recently redeveloped downtowns that are paradoxically driving down segregation rates. Rapid accelerations in housing costs over the past few decades have driven many Black renters out of larger costals cities and into older, formerly predominantly white suburbs. While the Black populations of parts of major cities like Los Angeles and Oakland have declined, far-flung suburbs like Palmdale in Southern California and Antioch in the Bay Area have seen rising numbers of Black families.
“African Americans and to a lesser extent Latinos are moving to suburban areas at the fastest clip we’ve observed since the civil rights era,” said Michael Stoll, professor of public policy at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.
While more diverse now than they were in the mid-20th century, these suburbs are not the high-opportunity enclaves associated with high-quality school systems and upward economic mobility. And Stoll stresses that continued patterns of segregation, gentrification and displacement have practical impacts for how white, Black and other ethnic groups view one another.
“There are consequences to segregation,” said Stoll. “There are questions around social cohesion, and that can’t be any more important than what we’re observing in the current debates we’re having around racial and social justice. It’s hard to become a socially cohesive place if people are living in different neighborhoods and not being able to communicate and work together around common interests.”
Wealth gap starker than income gap
Income gaps aside, disparities in wealth are even starker — and more consequential.
“Wealth gives a cushion if something unexpected happens. If your car breaks down or something happens to your house, you don’t dip into your income, you dip into your savings” said Esi Hutchful, policy analyst at the California Budget and Policy Center. “It’s your wealth that allows you to invest in yourself, in your business, in the next generation.”
Reliable wealth data is unfortunately severely lacking at the state level. But results from one financial survey of households in the Los Angeles metro area illustrates just how dramatic the wealth gap is for Black households.
The key to wealth accumulation for most U.S. households is owning a home. That’s especially true in California, where skyrocketing home values have transformed homes in formerly middle-class neighborhoods into million-dollar nest eggs.
Those wealth gains have largely been accrued by non-Black homeowners. While more than 60% of white California households and 58% of Asian California households are homeowners, only 33% of Black households own the home they live in.
As predatory lenders disproportionately targeted Black would-be homeowners across the country, the late 2000’s foreclosure crisis decimated Black homeownership nationally. While homeownership rates have somewhat rebounded for other demographic groups, Black homeownership has flatlined (although very recent data suggest some gains).
Lost equity in Black homes
You can also see signs of systemic racism in the home values for Black households that do own homes
Homes in majority Black neighborhoods across the country are undervalued compared to equivalent homes in neighborhoods with few Black residents, controlling for factors like the quality of the local school district and access to neighborhood amenities like parks.
The San Francisco Bay Area has the largest equity gap of any major metro area in the country between comparable homes in comparable Black and non-Black neighborhoods: On average, homes in Black-majority neighborhoods are devalued by about $164,000. In the Los Angeles area, homes in Black-majority neighborhoods are devalued by about $70,000.
“You have appraisals, you have lending practices, you have real estate agent behavior,” said Andre Perry, researcher at the Brookings Institute. “We clearly see that there is discrimination baked in the practices that come out in the research.”
How the pandemic could exacerbate the housing crisis
The economic fallout from the novel coronavirus pandemic has added a new, pressing dimension to Black Californians’ housing crisis.
With Black households already disproportionately more likely to have high rent burdens, tenants’ rights groups fear a wave of evictions from missed rent payments could be coming as expanded unemployment benefits are scheduled to expire next month. In a Census survey conducted at the beginning of June, less than half of Black California renters who responded to the question expressed high confidence they would be able to make next month’s rent.
Lee says the pandemic has laid bare the racial divides the state has long struggled to close.
“These systems aren’t broken, this is how they were designed to work,” she said. “We’re catching up to the reality and understanding of how horrible that really is.”