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The Lasting Legacy Of Redlining

We looked at 138 formerly redlined cities and found most were still segregated — just like they were designed to be.

In 1939, officials working with the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) went to Cleveland, Ohio, as part of the agency’s national effort to grade neighborhoods based on their perceived mortgage-lending risk.

One of the neighborhoods that officials visited — now known mostly as Fairfax — was 55 percent Black, and as such, they gave this area a “D” grade, meaning they thought Fairfax was “hazardous,” or at high risk for defaulting on mortgage loans. In their report, HOLC officials concluded that property prices were trending down due to a “strong colored infiltration” and that there was a “detrimental change of ownership occupancy from white to colored.” Fairfax, like most metropolitan neighborhoods where Black people lived in the early 1900s, was then marked with red ink in the HOLC’s maps — a practice referred to as redlining.

It’s been over 80 years since the lines were drawn in Fairfax and over 50 years since the use of redlining was legally banned, but the impact of redlining is still felt in cities like Cleveland, where redlined neighborhoods are some of the most starkly segregated in the country.

But it’s not just Cleveland. In its 20 years of existence, the now-defunct HOLC drew hundreds of these maps across the country. In total, we analyzed the demographics of 138 metropolitan areas where HOLC drew maps, using data provided by the University of Richmond’s Mapping Inequality project and by the 2020 census. And we found that nearly all formerly redlined zones in the country are still disproportionately Black, Latino or Asian compared with their surrounding metropolitan area, while two-thirds of greenlined zones — neighborhoods that HOLC deemed “best” for mortgage lending — are still overwhelmingly white.

“The redlining maps are like the Rosetta stone of American cities,” said LaDale Winling, a professor of history at Virginia Tech and one of the researchers behind the Mapping Inequality project. Winling told us that these maps were used to codify and institutionalize practices that had already been ongoing at a more scattershot level within the real estate industry.

But despite formerly redlined zones sharing a purpose — to disproportionately deny loans to low-income Americans and, in particular, Black and minority Americans — the legacy of redlining differs from city to city and region to region.