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Rachel D. Godsil and Sarah E. Waldeck, Home Equity: Rethinking Race and Federal Housing Policy, 98 Denv. L. Rev. 523 (2021).

As a little girl growing up in a segregated Southern town in the 1960s, I did not understand the policies and practices that led to the creation of my neighborhood. Right after my birth, my parents purchased a very small single-family home in a newly built segregated subdivision, a subdivision created for just us, a subdivision that lacked many of the services and amenities typically available in white neighborhoods.

Reading the article Home Equity: Rethinking Race and Federal Housing Policy, written by Rachel Godsil and Sarah Waldeck, caused me to think about how federal housing policy could have led to the creation of that all-Black neighborhood that provided both a safe and an unsafe space in which to grow up.

In my childhood neighborhood, we played in the street as we had no parks and we walked to an elementary school that was built on the far side of a four-lane street and within close proximity to manufacturing facilities and railroad tracks. I do not recall sidewalks or streetlights or crosswalks, but I do recall drainage ditches and flooding and the day a schoolmate was killed by a car while she was trying to cross that four-lane street to get to school.

In their article, Godsil and Waldeck declare: “With few exceptions, the government at every level has empowered white people to create ‘white spaces’ and has both stigmatized and failed to invest in Black neighborhoods and communities.” The authors propose a rethinking of federal housing policy, arguing for a corrective policy that addresses the inequities of the past and that gives agency to those who have been denied decision-making power in their choices of where to live, a decision that has been historically racialized.

They use a definition of agency that recognizes that conditions outside of the individual must exist to exercise power, i.e., that there are factors other than autonomy which can be a component of agency. Such agency would mean that “Black households are empowered to determine where and how to live.”

Godsil and Waldeck give a short history of the role of federal government decisions that are the foundation for current racialized housing policies. We are all familiar with the history of racially restrictive covenants, exclusionary zoning, and redlining.

The authors take us back even further to the distribution of land under the Homestead Act and to the failure of the government to make grants of the promised forty-acres to the formerly enslaved. Although that discussion is brief, it emphasizes the entrenchment of anti-Blackness in governmental land distribution and housing policies from the very beginning of the federal government’s role in providing for land and housing.

Several areas are proposed for corrective investments in response to those historic racialized policies, including investments in homeownership, in affordable rental housing, in community transformation, and in mass transportation. Their proposals seek to not just make changes in those areas, but to give agency to those historically impacted by those racialized policies.

Godsil and Waldeck acknowledge that their proposals are massive in size and scope, but remind us that so too were the New Deal and post-World War II programs that gave white families the power, i.e., the agency, to decide where to live.

Their proposals challenge us to ensure that Black families have that same agency to decide where to live. Corrective action in housing policies that are grounded in that agency would lead to the creation of a different type of programming and to a different allocation of resources than currently exist. One concrete example is the proposal for agency in transportation through an increase in mass-transit funding in general and more particular, for the creation of plans to build more affordable housing near transit stops.

The discussion of proposals for agency in homeownership considers administrative feasibility and even constitutional difficulties in creating programs with a preference for Black homeowners. Lingering over that discussion is how to give Black households the same agency in housing choices as white households.

As I read the article, I wondered about the feasibility for implementing even a few of the extensive proposals and for changing our thinking about federal housing policies to include corrective justice for past practices and programs.

Godsil and Waldeck predicted my skepticism: “As described, a confluence of painful circumstances [policing and Covid-related deaths] has led to an unprecedented level of interest in addressing systemic racism. We believe that the political will exists to finally begin dismantling the structures that have undergirded residential racial segregation.”

I am not as confident as Godsil and Waldeck about the existence of that political will. I am, however, persuaded that corrective justice in housing policy requires agency for Black households, an agency that means “Black households are empowered to determine where and how to live.”

And that small house where I first lived—it still stands. But my family moved in 1969 to a house just a little larger—built in another subdivision created for just us, for Black homeowners. My parents exercised what agency they did have to get us one more bedroom and a garage to park the car. No, we did not have sidewalks and we continued to play in the streets. But at least it didn’t flood.

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Cite as: Serena Williams, Justice, Just Us, and Housing Policy: A Call for Correction, JOTWELL (January 25, 2022) (reviewing Rachel D. Godsil and Sarah E. Waldeck, Home Equity: Rethinking Race and Federal Housing Policy, 98 Denv. L. Rev. 523 (2021)),