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Event series grapples with past and present effects of discriminatory housing practices

Racism, Rent and Real Estate
MinnPost file photo by Karen Boros
Racial covenants increased substantially through 1968, with as many as 10,000 believed to have existed in Minneapolis alone.

A new event series starting Thursday will showcase Minnesota’s long history with discriminatory housing practices and racial segregation.

Racism, Rent and Real Estate: Fair Housing Reframed, a collaboration between a dozen nonprofit and educational organizations, will mark the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 by exploring the history of racial segregation that led to its passing, as well as how those housing barriers continue to affect people of color in Minnesota.

The event series, which includes an exhibit at the Hennepin History Museum and a bus tour of historic sites where housing discrimination took place, originally arose from the Mapping Prejudice Project, an ongoing study out of the University of Minnesota that identifies and tracks the use of racially restrictive deeds — also known as racial covenants — across Hennepin County since the beginning of the 20th century.

“We wanted to make the map in such a way that it was a catalyst for conversation,” said Mapping Prejudice Project Director Kirsten Delegard. “Even people who are well informed about our contemporary disparities just don’t have historical background to understand how we got to the place that we are today.”

Delegard said in Hennepin County, they discovered the first instance of a racial covenant, which made selling land to people of color illegal, in 1910. But so-called racial covenants increased substantially through 1968, she said, and the project has since uncovered more than 5,000 of these deeds — with as many as 10,000 believed to have existed in Minneapolis alone.

The event series will eventually work to connect the dots between the implementation of those deeds and the stark racial, educational and economic barriers that still exist in the Twin Cities now, Delegard said. In 2015, the Twin Cities had the lowest rate of black homeownership in the country, according to a Star Tribune analysis, with only 23 percent of metro’s African-American population owning homes.

Particularly, Delegard said, the deeds show how as Minneapolis developed, restrictions were swiftly implemented in the southern half of the city, where the wealthiest communities still remain concentrated today. “In this case, an image is worth a thousand words, honestly,” she said. “The patterns are very clear.”

Supporting affordable housing efforts

The event series doesn’t simply aim to illuminate the past, but to also help inform decisions for the future, said Carolyn Szczepanski of the Minnesota Housing Partnership, a key partner in organizing the series. “It’s really important to step back and look at what are the policies that got us here so that we can right those wrongs,” she said.

For Szczepanski, that means investing more funding to develop and retain affordable housing across the metro and passing policies that help prevent displacement of low-income families as neighborhoods develop.

According to the most recent data from the Metropolitan Council, affordable housing is disappearing in the Twin Cities while housing cost continues to rise. In 2013, only 6 percent of housing in the Twin Cities was considered affordable housing — down 29 percent from the previous year. Meanwhile, housing costs increased by 8 percent between 2011 and 2015, according to another report. “We absolutely need more resources for affordable housing,” Szczepanski said. “We invest in education, we invest in roads … but we don’t invest in housing in that way.”

Bolder solutions

Others would like to see the event series spark more conversations around bolder solutions for addressing the state’s housing and wealth gaps — outside simply funding more affordable housing.

For Me’Lea Connelly, founder of Village Trust Financial Cooperative, a black-led credit union startup, that means potentially earmarking unused land for black ownership. “We’ve got tons of lots sitting there [in north Minneapolis],” she said. “Why don’t we earmark those for a black land trust? So that way, we know no matter what, when folks are ready, this land is waiting for them.”

Village Trust Financial Cooperative will also participate in the event series, Connelly said, but she believes neighborhoods like north Minneapolis can’t keep depending on government and philanthropic support. The only sustainable solution, she said, is to find ways for those communities to permanently obtain wealth, such as owning land — something that’s particularly difficult in a renter-heavy area like north Minneapolis. “More creative ideas like that, more bold ideas, out of the box ideas … is paramount,” she said.

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