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  • Camille Ofulue

Redlining in Boston: How the Architects of the Past Have Shaped Boston’s Future

Boston is one of the most segregated cities in the country. Massachusetts, a notoriously liberal, blue state still contains stark racial inequities after decades of progress. The key to understanding this paradox lies in the city’s long history of redlining, a discriminatory method of organizing neighborhoods.

Racial discrimination is not new to the city of Boston. In 1843, the first racially restrictive covenant, a clause stating that the land not be sold to a “Negro or native of Ireland,” ever to be included in a property deed was in Brookline. In 1927, the National Association of Real Estate Boards’ Code of Ethics created a similar covenant, stating “no part of the property should be used, occupied, sold, or leased to black people, unless they were servants, janitors, or chauffeurs living in basements, servants’ quarters, or a barn or garage in the rear.”

The House Ownership Loan Corporation (HOLC) was established in the 1930s as a part of FDR’s New Deal to assist homeowners in refinancing their mortgage debt during the Great Depression. To evaluate the properties and homeowners, the program created Residential Security maps color-coded based on the “risk” level of the area: red for hazardous, yellow for declining, blue for desirable, and green for best. If the area was labeled hazardous, it would be “redlined by lending institutions, denying access to capital investments, which could improve the housing and economic opportunity of residents.”

The HOLC ratings and their justifications for Boston show that wherever Black families resided, no matter their income, was automatically marked as hazardous. For proof, one needs to look no further than Roxbury, which was deemed red despite its great public transit and school system because of the “infiltration of Negros.” A neighborhood in Cambridge was labeled yellow despite the presence of high-class apartments because “a few Negro families moved in...and threaten to spread.” A neighborhood in Milton was deemed blue solely because of the presence of “one Negro family.” Meanwhile, because it had no black residents, a neighborhood in Jamaica Plains was deemed green. This system created a financial dimension to racial segregation. Private mortgage lenders refused to finance homes in red and yellow areas. As a result, Black people were debarred from homeownership while white families were incentivized to prevent Black people from moving into areas they inhabited.

Although redlining was occurring nationwide, racial segregation in Boston was especially egregious. Along with redlining, the United States federal government continued to support racial segregation in the Boston area by funding 25 public housing projects, almost all of which were segregated by race. Through these projects, the Boston Housing Authority completely transformed the racial makeup of several areas, both integrated and not. For example, approximately 100 Black and white families were evicted from Kendall Square in Cambridge to create New Towne Court, the first public housing project in New England. In just three years, the once integrated area was now 100% white and black people were banned from moving to the housing project.

Under the Federal Housing Act of 1968, it is “unlawful to discriminate in the terms, conditions, or privileges of sale of a dwelling because of race or national origin.” This outlawed redlining nationwide. After its passing, the city of Boston established the Boston Urban Renewal Group, or the BBRG, a collection of banks that would offer black Bostonians FHA-insured loans and mortgages. Despite good intentions, this organization would prove not to be the equalizer it set out to be. The BBRG required that these loans and mortgages were used only to purchase homes in Dorchester, Mattapan, and Roxbury, all “red” areas. This influx of Black residents triggered white flight in neighborhoods like Mattapan. The area, once a white, Jewish middle-class neighborhood, transformed into a black, low-income neighborhood in less than a decade.

Although redlining was outlawed over 50 years ago, its effects are still apparent today. Because red-lined areas did not receive capital investments, the difference between red and green areas can be observed in all aspects of life. Green areas were better able to lobby their city governments for amenities like parks. At the same time, city planners set their sights on red-lined areas to build more public housing and highways. Because of asphalt-heavy construction and lack of vegetated areas, historically red-lined areas are actually hotter than historically green-lined areas. Some of the consequences of redlining include food apartheid, educational disparities, and disproportional policing. In refusing to provide Black people loans and financing for homes in areas, many Black families were denied the opportunity to build generational wealth to pass along to their descendants, widening the socioeconomic gap between Black and white people.

Today, Boston’s black population is still concentrated in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan, with approximately two-thirds of the Black Bostonians residing in those three towns. In 2019, Boston ranked as the 19th most segregated city in the United States. The city’s index of dissimilarity between black and white residents as of 2020 is 68.8, meaning that 68.8% of white Bostonians would have to relocate to a different neighborhood for white and Black people to be evenly distributed across all Boston neighborhoods. This was an increase from the 60% index of dissimilarity recorded in 2010. This increase could be attributed to the increase of gentrification in cities similar to Boston. For example, in San Jose, 87% of major gentrifying areas were rated as either red or yellow by the HOLC. The effects of gentrification, compounded with the consequences of poor city planning in red-lined areas, only exacerbated the inequity between red and green areas in all facets of life.

The effects of redlining and other federally funded methods of segregation in the early 20th century did not just disappear with the federal programs that carried them out. Redlining has shaped the lives of present-day Americans and Black residents of cities like Boston must still navigate the aftermath of these policies.


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