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Two Americas: Phoenix’s redlining legacy

Posted at 7:27 PM, Jan 12, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-12 21:27:22-05

PHOENIX — The Central City South area of Phoenix is an industrial area where minorities with low incomes could afford to live. It’s been that way for a century.

And for the past 20 years Eva Olivas, Executive Director and CEO of the non-profit Phoenix Revitalization Corporation, has been working to get the area the attention and investment it needs.

“We've been pleading for many years to put sidewalks in our neighborhoods,” Olivas said.

From sidewalks to streetlights to shaded bus stops she said this neighborhood has had to fight for all of it.

“So that's kind of who we are; we’re this little forgotten island, battling all the time to get our due,” Olivas said.

But Associate Professor Rashad Shabazz with ASU’s School of Social Transformation said the real battle is with history because the neighborhood lies entirely within the area of Phoenix that was historically denied home loans.

In the 1930s the Homeowner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC), a now-defunct federally backed agency, drew maps for more than 200 cities across the country to document the riskiness of home lending in neighborhoods.

The HOLC maps, as they would become known, were divided into four color-coded areas: the blue areas were rated “best,” or as Shabazz described, “places that the federal government deems stable, where loans can be given.” Purple areas were “still desirable,” yellow areas were “definitely declining.”

Red areas were “hazardous.”

“These are areas that the federal government says loans should not be given,” Shabazz said.

In Phoenix, the hazardous designation or redlining was reserved for areas south of Van Buren Street: the only part of the city where Black, Mexican, Asians were allowed to live. Poor white people also lived in redlined areas immediately north of Van Buren according to map descriptions.

The rough boundaries were Interstate 17 to the west and south; Van Buren St to the north; and Sky Harbor Airport to the east.

The neighborhood falls within a larger area now known as Central City Village.

One survey described the redlined area near Central Avenue and Buckeye Road as “a semi-industrial section, with very poor houses. Negroes, Mexicans and different classes of foreigners are rapidly occupying this area.”

“What the federal government is saying is that mixed race communities, or largely communities of color, are a bad financial bet. And that is baked into the housing system,” Shabazz said.

And the repercussions went beyond losing the benefits of homeownership.

“By robbing these areas of home loans, in the 40s 50s 60s, and so on, it denies them funds to build up those communities,” he said.

Less homeownership meant less investment. Less investment meant less resources.

“As a result, these communities remain poor and working class. And even as black people move out of them, other immigrant communities, be it from Asia, be it from south of the border, move into those neighborhoods, because the housing is cheap,” Shabazz said.

Now more than 50 years after redlining was outlawed in the 1968 Fair Housing Act, Olivas said she sees progress.

Within the last 20 years Matthew Henson Public Housing which was constructed as segregated housing for Black families in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, was redeveloped into Henson Village. The project rents to a variety of incomes including seniors, affordable and market rate.

“I call it a full-service housing project,” Olivas said. “It really is great how it’s transformed, reduced crime. It's just impacted so much in this neighborhood.”

A more recent change is the construction of the light rail extension through the neighborhood.

But Olivas said one important thing is still missing: “Employment opportunities. Local employment opportunities for residents that live here.”

And so the fight continues. But this time around Olivas is hoping the wait is much shorter.

“I don't want to go another 100 years before I get that sidewalk in every neighborhood here,” she said.