The history of New York City’s neighborhoods, like in most municipalities across the country, is defined by discrimination. This includes redlining neighborhoods housing New Yorkers of color, service cuts in neighborhoods slated for slum clearance and urban renewal, wealth destruction and predatory practices. Finally, when these neighborhoods needed deeper healing, the city leaned on over-policing as a primary method for “cleaning up” redlined areas, eventually paving the way for speculative investment and gentrification. We show this pernicious history in our Undesign the Redline exhibit.
The center of this story is housing: structural racism and inequality were designed into our housing system. Though meaningful efforts have been made to end racist policies and practices in housing, the legacy of racial inequity centered in wealth, health and homes remains as entrenched as ever in New York City. It isn’t over if it hasn’t been undesigned.
Eric Adams, as New York’s next mayor, will need to take an approach to housing that goes beyond ending harm to also heal, repair and undesign legacies of harm. We know America desperately needs a plan for healing. This shift from ending to undoing is needed to move forward into a healed paradigm where every New Yorker can thrive. This is why Designing the We is a proud signatory of the United for Housing: From the Ground Up report, which calls on Mayor-elect Adams to develop a reparative approach to housing. We already have many places to start.
The Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968, and policy is finally being developed that Affirmatively Furthers Fair Housing––intended to heal the legacy of segregation. The Community Reinvestment Act was passed in 1977, but the racial wealth gap remains largely unchanged, prompting ground-up efforts to build community wealth. Meanwhile, we have seen the movement for racial healing in America once again renewed, and it must be unwavering, or we will live with the fear and anger that grips us now. It’s time for change. This moment calls us as a city to dedicate ourselves to healing community and social fabric, repairing disparities in wealth and health, and undesigning the systemic legacy of harm to the benefit of all.
We often say that if you are not deliberately undoing the legacies of structural racism, then you are almost certainly reproducing them. We are proud that our “Undesign the Redline” exhibit was present in Evanston, IL, when Alderman Robin Rue Simmons led the charge for the first Municipal Reparations policy with the support of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America. New York should explore the same. Healing and undesigning will need to be integrated more broadly into housing policy, systems, and structures. It follows that for every policy that reproduces harm, there is another that heals, repairs and undesigns. All New Yorkers will benefit from this kind of policy.
There are several proposals in the UFH report that speak to this reparative approach and could together form a larger reparative strategy. These include critical homeownership proposals like down payment grants, cooperative models, tenant opportunity to purchase, and creating a pipeline for the sale of rental buildings into community ownership. They also include advancing the Where We Live NYC plan already underway, robustly enforcing anti-discrimination in housing and lending, and supporting innovative models like Community Land Trusts that will stabilize housing for everyone.
There are many more policies and approaches that need exploring as a larger strategy is developed, and there are already so many organizers and leaders who have been working this way in New York and beyond. The next mayor should learn from them.
During his campaign, Eric Adams highlighted the historic injustices that caused racist harm and we look forward to working with him to initiate a strategic process of healing, repairing and undesigning that can begin to close the racial wealth gap, affirmatively further fair housing and heal our social fabric. We need to build toward a healed future where identity does not determine access to a home, family sustaining wealth, health, and security.
Braden Crooks is a co-founder of Designing the We, the creators of the Undesign the Redline exhibit.