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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

Jumping to Conclusions About the HOLC and Redlining

Since the first discussion of the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation maps by Historian Kenneth T. Jackson, many writers have pointed to them as the origins of redlining (highlighting areas with large ethnic or racial minorities with red lines).  The maps through color-coded neighborhood blocks and the survey sheets with spaces provided for racial and ethnic residents in a section offer a sense of precision and visual impact.  However, it is too easy to jump to the conclusion that the HOLC served as the origins of redlining in American cities. These maps are examples of the kind of long-term thinking that the HOLC, local banks and realtors, municipalities, and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) started using in the aftermath of the Great Depression.     

Despite the harsh wording on the survey sheets, the HOLC did not use these maps and documents for lending as its work had finished by the time the City Survey project started in 1935.  Nor, did the surveys mean that good loans were not possible in the lowest two categories, merely that the HOLC thought loans there required a different kind of servicing.  Further, the HOLC did not share these maps with state and local officials, nor even with others in the federal government out of concern for their misuse.  They remain marked “confidential” in the National Archives and do not appear in the collections of other housing entities such as the FHA.  Historian Amy Hillier and others have argued that the predominant conclusion that HOLC and its maps started redlining has overshadowed the roles of other groups at the local, state, and federal levels in those decisions. 

Significantly, the Federal Housing Administration, unlike the HOLC, has a central purpose of helping to set national housing policy and to provide funding far beyond the initial effort to stabilize housing markets.  The FHA supported the collection of data and the standardization of procedures to establish housing values through the 1930s all the way to the present-day.  State and local governments have an interest in determining property values for taxation purposes and economic redevelopment independent of the federal government’s efforts.  The continual reassessment of property values requires the continual collection of data that goes into planning at the local and regional level.  Realtors, bankers, and insurance companies started well before the Great Depression to gather data on neighborhoods to establish housing prices, evaluate risk, and forecast future developments through maps of their own.  The products of these groups is much more difficult to find even when they have survived, and require a much great amount of local context and knowledge to decipher. 

The HOLC maps are important visual documents that give clues as to the overall thinking regarding housing policy during the mid-twentieth century.  Redlining exists in the present-day, however, it does not stem from a single root cause.  Instead, it grew out of local attitudes and decisions, supported by political and financial leaders on the state and regional level, and then to the federal government.  Searching for a singular “smoking-gun” hides the far more complex and broad-based set of ideas that fostered its existence.  The greater involvement of the federal government during and after the Great Depression in state and local affairs helped to codify attitudes into national policy, but redlining does not come from a single federal agency.  Any effort to understand the origins of redlining must reach back to the local level to uncover the roots of the policy in the offices, homes, and streets of a community.

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