Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Housing and race: More than meets the eye

What is this billboard not asking us to question?

Architectural historian and director of the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

At a prominent intersection in my city, a billboard presents the face of a white woman, her furrowed brow and sad eyes conveying a state of distress. A red-lettered caption to the right of her portrait reads “I don’t want to lose my house.” Paid for by Making Home Affordable, a program of the Departments of the Treasury and Housing and Urban Development, the sign presents a poignant reminder that the U.S. housing crisis that began in 2008 is not behind us. An Obama administration program, Making Home Affordable is intended to help homeowners avoid the foreclosures that affected millions of Americans after the housing bubble burst and, according to the agency’s website, “to stabilize the country’s housing market and improve the nation’s economy.” The woman’s anguished appearance may elicit sympathy, while the red letters of the text certainly convey important information to the many Americans facing financial distress and the horrific prospects presented by the possibility of home loss. These are important and necessary messages.

What the billboard does not ask viewers to question, however, are the deep and historic structures that tie the housing market to the U.S. economy in a seemingly inexorable set of links that likewise give shape to the contours of race, class, citizenship, and respectability in this country, now as they have for decades. That the U.S. economy has depended on a robust housing market is not news to anyone who listens to or reads financial reports. Housing starts are, as they long have been, a crucial measure of the nation’s financial health. In times of economic depression, such as the years between the stock market crash of 1929 and the end of World War II in 1945, the number of housing starts dropped to a point of near stagnation; after 1945, the pent-up demand for housing that was coupled with the return to postwar economic prosperity created an enormous surge in residential construction. Aided by the federally subsidized construction of highways and the rise in consumption of automobiles that allowed the possibility of commuting lifestyles, as well as by the system of federally insured mortgages that became part of the GI Bill, developers created large-scale suburban developments built largely on former agricultural lands, dramatically transforming the U.S. cultural landscape in the process. Where productive farms once grew produce that fed the nation, postwar homeowners instead cultivated lawns that consumed fuel and returned nothing except a verdant horizontal divider demarcating one of the most sacred of American institutions: private property. That these suburban developments were largely available to middle-class whites to the exclusion of many others, and that they were created largely without concern for the environmental consequences wrought by large-scale sprawling development meant (and continues to mean) little in the face of economic growth.

So when I drive to the grocery store and I pass that billboard, I wonder about the additional content it represents but that is harder to see. I am not surprised that the billboard includes the face of a white woman because the majority of single-family homeowners in the United States are still white (although one of the images on the organization’s website does include the portrait of a black man). I wonder about the ideological work this image performs; I wonder about the lack of prominent signs elsewhere in my town and in the United States offering government assistance for those who have experienced unfair housing practices, unfair lending practices, and the steering of discriminatory real estate agents for decades, practices that have made it far more difficult for people of color to accumulate wealth and to pass it down to their families through generations; I wonder why our government seldom questions the wisdom of an economic system predicated on the economically and environmentally unsustainable model of a housing industry that must remain perpetually in a state of new production if the U.S. economy is to thrive; and I wonder whether our most vulnerable citizens are yet truly protected from the predatory lending practices that got us into this mess in the first place.

The history of these issues—housing segregation, the seeming ineffability of white privilege and its connections to home ownership, and the cultural work performed by representations of houses and housing issues—all lie at the heart of my recently published book, Little White Houses: How the Postwar Home Constructed Race in America. Although we already know and understand a great deal about the history of segregation in the United States and the impact of specific economic, political, and social structures on the creation of inequality and social injustice related to housing, I wanted to know more about the fine-grained, material dimensions of that system that demand our everyday participation. Thus, the book examines very ordinary, commonly found images, objects, and texts to try to understand the ways similarly ordinary houses and the visual culture attendant to them continuously and pervasively shaped and reshaped ideas about the connections between white identities and homeownership. Ultimately, I discovered that the history of U.S housing in the postwar period is closely connected to the ways we may receive the billboard I now drive past on my way to the grocery store; that the story I tell in Little White Houses creates a significant backdrop for understanding the ways we are meant to understand the foreclosure crisis and the many Americans now struggling to hold onto their homes. I hope it might also help us ask new questions about the ways the housing market is imagined in a United States that still lacks equal opportunities in housing for all.


Dianne Harris is an architectural historian and director of the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities at the University of Illinois, Urbana–Champaign. She is author of Little White Houses: How the Postwar  Home Constructed Race in AmericaThe Nature of Authority: Villa Culture, Landscape, and Representation in Eighteenth-Century Lombardy; and editor of Second Suburb: Levittown, Pennsylvania.

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