The choices are not binary; there is some gray area. But in pondering government policy and racial disparities and economic inequity, there are two well-worn paths: We can try to rectify the sins of the past and risk the unintended consequences; or we can ignore those sins and bury them in the shadows of history, like an ugly family secret that is never discussed.
Two bills in the Legislature — House Bill 1474 and its companion, Senate Bill 5496 — seek to acknowledge and partially address Washington’s history of housing discrimination. It would establish a loan program to help with down payments and closing costs for some potential first-time homebuyers. The caveats: It would be available to members of a protected class who lived in Washington before April 1968 — or their descendants — and who have an income below the median.
There is a lot to unpack here. And I can hear the groans emanating from the reading of the words “protected class.” Few things lead to more minds snapping shut than the words “protected class.” But let’s try to remain open-minded, at least for the duration of this column.
Washington, like every other place in America, spent most of the 20th century making liberal use of housing covenants and redlining policies. Blacks, Asians, Jewish people and other minorities were prohibited from purchasing homes in certain areas; the places where they could purchase a house would then receive scant services from cities and scant investment from lenders.
When you own a home or a business but the city won’t pick up the garbage and you can’t get a loan to fix the hole in the roof, it is easy for critics to look from afar and claim that you are lazy and your neighborhood is blighted.
In the midst of this, the G.I. Bill set about building the great American middle class, providing unemployment benefits and loans for education and housing. But Blacks were systematically excluded from this largesse.
To many people, these points are moot. You don’t need to listen to conservative talk radio for long before hearing somebody opine about how all this is in the past. The Civil Rights Act, after all, was passed in 1964; the Fair Housing Act in 1968. Those were generations ago, right? The playing field is level now, right?
But there are problems with that philosophy. It is like holding a 100-meter dash where some competitors get a 50-meter head start and the losers are told, “Sorry, you just weren’t fast enough.” The U.S. Census Bureau, using data from 2019, reported last year: “Non-Hispanic White householders had a median household wealth of $187,300, compared with $14,100 for Black householders and $31,700 for Hispanic householders.”
So, whites have six times the accumulated wealth of Hispanics and 14 times the wealth of Blacks. And the majority of that disparity can be traced to homeownership and the wealth that comes with it, which is passed from generation to generation.
Contrary to what you might hear on your favorite cable news station, pointing this out is not an effort to make my children feel guilty. Americans should feel guilty only if they ignore the truth of history; ignorance is not bliss, it’s just ignorance — and it’s not something to be proud of.
Which brings us back to the bills in the Legislature, which are co-sponsored by local Sen. Annette Cleveland and Reps. Monica Stonier and Sharon Wylie. The program would be funded by a $100 fee added to document filings such as new property deeds and titles, and loans would be paid back as part of mortgage payments and paid off with the sale of a home.
Meanwhile, there are legitimate questions. Would the program be solvent? We’ll leave that to financial experts. Would expanding the pool of potential homebuyers lead to an increase in prices? Sure, but that’s better than pretending the past didn’t happen. Does wealth disparity require redress and is this the best way to do it? Well, that’s what we elect legislators to figure out.
And despite all that, it seems important that the issue see the light of day.