Redlining and Urban Heat Islands

In the 1930’s the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation of America (HOLC) created actuarial maps of the United states. These maps were color coded — Green, Blue, Yellow, and Red — to reflect the amount of “risk” associated with home loans in those areas. The colors corresponded to “Best” (green), “Still Desirable” (blue), “Definitely Declining” (yellow), and “Hazardous” (red). Being in a green area made you likely to secure a federally-insured home mortgage, something that was effectively unavailable to red areas. Red areas were often associated with black populations, and these maps are where the term “redlining” comes from.

Here’s an HOLC map of Arlington, courtesy of the University of Richmond’s mapping inequality project.

"Redline" map of Arlington, MA, courtesty of the Home Owner's Loan Corporation
HOLC “redline” map of Arlington, Massachusetts

Note that Arlington does not have any “Hazardous” (red) areas; 68% of the town fell into the top two grades, meaning that we were generally a safe bet as far as federal mortgage insurers were concerned. To the extent that the HOLC preferred white communities, Arlington seems to have fit the bill. According to US census data.

  • 1930: population 36,094. No breakdown by race.
  • 1940: population 40,013. 99.8% white.
  • 1950: population 44,353. No breakdown by race.
  • 1960: population 49,953. 99.7% white.
  • 1970: population 53,524. 99.0% white.
  • 1980: population 48,219. 97.3% white.

Today, Arlington is about 84% white. But during the time that mortgage approvals were based on the HOLC maps — the mid 1930’s through the mid 1960’s — we certainly qualified as an overwhelmingly (> 99%) white community.

Arlington had four yellow-lined (“definitely declining”) areas; about 32% of the town. C1 (on the western edge of town) was noted for an “infiltration of Jews”, a “heavy concentration of relief families”, and hilly terrain which was “not conducive to good development”. But it had good schools and a nice area along Appleton St. C2 (along Mass Ave and Mill Brook) was noted for “obsolescence” with “business and housing mixed together” and “railroad tracks through [the] neighborhood”. There was an infiltration of lower-class people, a moderate number of relief families, and “little possibility of conversion of properties to business use”.

C3 (East Arlington, around the present location Thompson School and Menotomy Manor) was noted for “Obsolescence, poor reputations” and “foreign concentration”. There was an “infiltration of foreign [residents]” and a “heavy concentration of relief families”. On the positive side, there were “a few small farms in this section of high grade development of the ground [which] may be anticipated in the early future with modest houses”.

Finally, C4 (around Spy Pond, and near the Alewife T station) was “obsolescent”, with an infiltration of foreign families, and a moderately heavy concentration of relief families. The HOLC noted that “Houses East of Varnum Street [and] south of Herbert Road are built on low ground and many have damp basements which makes them difficult to keep occupied”.

That’s what the HOLC saw as the declining side of Arlington: Jews, foreigners (mostly Italian), relief families, obsolescence, damp basements, and proximity to the Boston-Maine railroad.

Exercise for the reader. Arlington has five public housing projects: Drake Village, Winslow Towers, Chestnut Manor, Cusack Terrace, and Menotomy Manor. What HOLC colors are associated with our public housing?

Buildings last for decades, and effects of the HOLC’s underwriting policies are still with us today — sometimes in unexpected ways. A 2020 paper called “The Effects of Historical Housing Policies on Resident Exposure to Intra-Urban Heat: A Study of 108 US Urban Areas” examined 108 communities, and tried to determine if there was a relationship between redlined areas and urban heat islands. Nationwide, this is what they found:

Land surface temperature as a function of HOLC risk category
Land Surface Temperature, by HOLC risk rating

LST stands for “land surface temperature” and shows how different HOLC risk categories compare to the overall temperature of a region. Green areas tend to be cooler, with less paved surface, more extensive tree canopies, and buildings with reflective exteriors. Red areas are warmer with more paved surfaces, less tree canopy, and building exteriors that absorb and release heat (e.g., brick and cinderblocks). While the degree varies across different parts of the country, the general trend is the same: as one goes from green to red, the surface temperature goes up. Formerly-redlined areas are far more likely to contain heat islands.

Exercise for the reader. Are there heat islands in Arlington? What (HOLC) color are they?

As the global temperature warms, Arlington (like many other communities) will have to contend with heat islands. The treatment is likely to be area-specific, following patterns laid out in the HOLC’s maps from the early-20th century.

The Color of Law on Sunnyside Ave

I live on Sunnyside Avenue in Arlington, Massachusetts. The neighborhood was built as two subdivisions in 1948, with 42 duplexes (84 homes total). These were starter homes with 792 square feet of finished space plus a basement with a garage. I affectionately refer to them as excellent specimens of mid-century slap-up. They were constructed in the mid 20th century, and the builder just kind of slapped them up.

Here’s one of the original newspaper ads for these homes.

Sunnyide - a Community of Duplexes in Arlington! Priced from $8750!

It’s fun to read the ad copy. The homes are “within walking distance of schools, transportation (MTA) and shopping centers” (a selling point that endures to this day); the lots are “large to provide for individual landscaping” (they’re 3,000 square feet give or take, which is unbuildably small by today’s zoning laws); and the homes have “full-sized dining rooms”, “spacious streamlined kitchens”, and “two large sunny bedrooms” (so much largeness for 792 square feet). I guess this was a time when good salesmanship took precedence over truth in advertising. It was a different time.

I have to admit, they were a pretty good deal. $8750 in 1948 is equivalent to around $95,000 in 2020 dollars; these homes, with the original floor plan, currently sell for around half a million dollars.

However, the part of the ad that most caught my attention was “All Mortgages FHA 25 years”. FHA refers to the Federal Housing Administration, who were the primary mortgage underwriters during the middle of the 20th century. They’re also an example of how the United States used housing policy as a tool for segregation; the FHA was in the business of insuring mortgages for white families in white neighborhoods. The Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston has a short summary of FHA practices. There’s also discussion of the FHA in Segregated by Design.

Which is to say, my nice little neighborhood in East Arlington was likely designed, built, and sold as a segregated development for whites.

Arlington’s biggest period of residential construction was in the 1920’s when we were building an average of 500 homes/year. But there was still a good deal of single- and two-family construction that took place from the 1930’s to the 1960’s — a bit over 5,000 homes. Since the FHA was the primary mortgage underwriter during that period, I think it’s safe to say that my neighborhood was probably not the only for-whites-only neighborhood in town.

I will end with two questions. How do we feel about this bit of history, and what (if anything) should we do about it?

What’s important for Housing – a Community Conversation

A portion of Envision Arlington’s town day booth was designed to spark a community conversation about housing. Envision set up a display with six poster boards, each representing a housing-related topic. Participants were given three dots and asked to place them on the topics they felt were most important. There were also pens and post-it notes on hand to capture additional comments. This post is a summary of the results. You could think of it as a straw-poll or temperature check on the opinions of town day attendees.

Social Justice Issues

Aiming for a diverse population by income and race; and being vigilant about identifying and neutralizing barriers to this goal.

Social Justice Issues

197 dots, plus a post-it note that reads “Increasing housing while preserving open space” (with three dots).

Lifestyle Options

Providing for different lifestyles: empty nesters, single millenials, young parents, families, walkable neighborhoods.

Lifestyle Options

149 dots and four post-it notes:

  • No more new 5-story buildings with no setbacks. Ugly. (3 dots)
  • Why must we maintain our high carbon footprint with single family homes and cars?
  • I want to live in a wofati (eco building) (Woodland Oehler Freak-Cheap Annualized Thermal Intertia). Not so legal, one day the norm. Thank you Arlington.
  • Connect to transit. Less single family housing with dedicated parking.

Housing Affordability

Affordable housing from subsidies, from construction of smaller units, or from building more housing to reduce the bidding price on current Arlington homes.

Housing Affordability

308 dots, with 10 post-it notes

  • We don’t need more housing. People need to be able to afford to stay in their homes.
  • Get Arlington out from the clutches of real estate lobby. (1 dot)
  • Wrong categories. Includes affordable housing and development which displaces low and moderate income housing
  • Restrictions on teardowns of small homes
  • Keep older apartment buildings. They are cheap and affordable.
  • Rent control and oversight. I can only afford to stay because I live in a place that is not secure and in disrepair.
  • Rent control. Please reinstate so that rent is affordable.
  • “Affordable” subsidized housing invades your privacy. Every year need all bank stubs, 401(k), like a criminal.
  • Build more housing. Build more duplexes, triplexes, etc. Upzone neighborhoods. More transit corridors. Renew calls for a red line stop. Build up downtown to encourage more density and housing in the same buildings as businesses. More housing + transit = a better society.
  • Protect neighborhoods

This was clearly the topic that got drew the most response. Arlington housing is expensive.

Maximizing Flexibility of Home Space

Providing for aging parents or childcare providers with a place in your home or getting help paying the mortgage by having a rentable space.

Maximizing Flexibility of Home Space

81 dots, and three post-it notes:

  • Change zoning to allow accessory dwelling apartments (aka in-law apartments) (1 dot)
  • Want nearby widowed mom to live in own house.
  • Accessible rentals, not up 3 flights of stairs.

Doing more with Existing Resources

Examining current Arlington Housing Authority, Housing Corporation of Arlington, and aging apartment buildings for addressing new housing needs.

Doing more with Existing Resources

143 dots, and five post-it notes:

  • Fix transportation infrastructure. Peope can live farther out and still get to work. (4 dots)
  • Extend red line to Arlington center and heights. (7 dots)
  • None of the above. Keep taxes low. (1 dot)
  • Accessible for aging residents. Age in place.
  • Do something about empty store fronts.

Setting a ten-year goal for new housing

Determining what Arlington’s housing goals should be, and setting about following through on the necessary zoning and incentives to get what we want.

Setting a ten-year goal for new housing

119 dots, and three sticky notes:

  • Why is America low-density? Why is this country slave to the auto? More housing near transit!
  • Who is “we”?
  • There is too much housing density now. Need business area to attract business.

Observations

As noted earlier, the cost of housing seemed to be the main issue of concern. This is understandable: housing prices in Arlington (and the region in general) have been on an escalator ride up since about 2000 or so. That’s led to our current high cost of housing, and also to a form of gradual gentrification. When housing is more expensive than it was last year, a new resident in town has to make more money (or be willing to spend more on housing) than last year’s new resident.

I see at least two broad responses to this: one is to keep the status quo, perhaps returning to the inexpensive housing of decades past. The other is for more multi-family housing, and more transit-oriented development. It will be interesting to see how these dynamics play out in the future.

There’s also recognition of the importance of older “naturally affordable” apartment buildings. Arlington was very pro-growth in the 1950s and 1960s; that’s fortunate, because it allowed these apartments to be built in the first place. On the downside, we haven’t done a good job of allowing new construction into the pipeline during recent decades. Buildings depreciate, so a new building is worth more than one that’s ten years old, which is worth more than one that’s twenty years old, and so on. At some point, the old apartments are likely to be refurbished/upgraded, and they’ll become more expensive as a result.

This is only the beginning of the conversation, but at least we’re getting it going.

Book Shows Municipal Contribution to Segregation

According to Richard Rothstein in his 2017 book, Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, “we have created a caste system in this country, with African-Americans kept exploited and geographically separate by racially explicit government policies,” he writes. “Although most of these policies are now off the books, they have never been remedied and their effects endure.” Zoning was one of the policies that contributed significantly to this outcome.

A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America

Here are some highlights, selected for Arlington readers, from this book:

P. VII
“… until the last quarter of the twentieth century, racially explicit policies of federal, state and local governments defined where white and African Americans should live. Today’s racial segregation in the North, South, Midwest, and West is not the the unintended consequence of individual choices and of otherwise well-meaning law and regulation but of unhidden public policy that explicitly segregated every metropolitan area in the United States. The policy was so systematic and forceful that is effects endure to the present time. Without our government’s purposeful imposition of racial segregation, the other causes – private prejudice, white flight, real estate starring, bank redlining, income differences, and self-segregation – still would have existed but with far less opportunity for expression. Segregation by intentional government action is not de facto. Rather, it is what courts call de jure: segregation by law and public policy. “

1917 – Buchanan v. Warley – Supreme Court case that overturned racial zoning ordinance in Louisville, Kentucky. Municipalities ignore and fought against this. Kansas City and Norfolk through 1987.

  • Post WWII GI Bill – African Americans largely excluded from education and mortgage benefits
  • Federal Housing Administration won’t insure mortgages to African Americans or mortgages in integrated neighborhoods. African Americans limited to non-amortizing loans, which means they build no equity in their homes while making payments
  • Federal, stage and local governments are used to enforce race-restrictive covenants in deeds.

1948 – Shelley v. Kraemer – Although racially restrictive real estate covenants are not per se illegal, since they do not involve state action, a court cannot enforce them under the Fourteenth Amendment. FHA continues to not insure mortgages for African Americans.

1968 – Fair Housing Act endorsed the rights of African Americans to to reside wherever they chose and could afford. Finally ending the Federal Housing Administration’s’ role in mortgage insurance discrimination.
1969 – Mass 40B law passed
1972 – Head of Arlington ARB editorial talking about preserving the suburban way of life
1973 – Town Meeting passes moratorium on apartment construction
1975 – Arlington zoning re-do that all but stops development
1977 – Supreme Court upholds Arlington Heights, IL zoning that prohibited multi-unit development anywhere by adjacent to an outlying commercial area. In meetings leading to the adoption of these rules, the public urged support for racially discriminatory reasons.

p. 179″Residential segregation is hard to undo for several reasons:

  • Parents’ economic status is commonly replicated in the net generation, so once government prevented African Americans from fully participating in the mid-twentieth-century free labor market, depressed incomes became, for many, a multi-generational trait
  • The value of white working and middle-class families’ suburban housing appreciated substantially over the years, resulting in a vast wealth difference between whites and blacks that helped to define permanently our racial living arrangements. Because parents can bequeath assets to their children, the racial wealth gap is even more persistent down through the generations than income differences.
  • Once segregation was established, seemingly race-neutral policies reinforced it to make remedies even more difficult. Perhaps most pernicious has been the federal tax code’s mortgage interest rate deduction, which increased the subsidies to higher-income suburban homeowners while providing no corresponding tax benefit for renters. Because de jure policies of segregation ensured that whites would be more likely to be owners and African Americans would more likely be renters, the tax code contributes to making African Americans and whites less equal, despite the code’s purportedly nonracial provisions.

Exclusionary Zoning in Arlington Began in 1950’s

by Alexander vonHoffman, Joint Center for Housing Studies, Harvard University, February 2006

The case study shows that in the 1970s the Town of Arlington completely abandoned its policy of encouraging development of apartment buildings—and high-rise buildings at that—and adopted requirements that severely constricted the possibilities for developing multifamily dwellings. Although members of the elite introduced the new approach, they were backed by rank-and-file citizens, who took up the cause to protect their neighborhoods from perceived threats.

The report outlines an intentional effort using land use and planning tools like zoning and building approvals, to exclude those with less desirable income or racial characteristics from residing in Arlington. Additional perspectives on Arlington’s exclusionary zoning efforts during this period are reported here.

Three Prong Perspective on New Housing Development

Issues of supply, affordability, and equity all contribute to an ongoing housing crisis in Massachusetts. Among U.S. metro areas with knowledge-based industries, metro Boston ranks near the bottom in housing production and near the top on development costs. Due to the latter, production of new affordable housing units has scarcely increased over the past decade. And largely decentralized authority over land use regulations, by 351 cities and towns, does little to foster uniform housing equity standards.

Clark Ziegler in MassBENCHMARK Journal vol.21 issue 1

For more information on the challenges of supply, affordability and equity, see the article. Clark Ziegler is the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Housing Partnership.