News Archives

Housing Discrimination in St. Louis

January 26, 2015

During assembly on Monday, January 26, Jamie Wagner discussed the historical roots of housing discrimination in St. Louis. Wagner (history) teaches the senior elective Urban Issues & Design. He spoke at Head of School Andy Abbott's invitation to continue the conversation — and education — about racial issues that surfaced with the August 9 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. Excerpts from Wagner's PowerPoint presentation follow:

"The events that unfolded on Canfield Drive on August 9 involved a long history of segregation and discrimination that still influences the interaction between Whites and African Americans today.

... Ferguson is a municipality in north St. Louis County. It is one of the larger cities of the 90 in the county with a population of just over 21,200 in the last census. For comparison, Ladue had a population of just over 8,500 in the 2010 census. However, the population of Ferguson has declined in every census since 1970 except for one that had a small increase of 200 individuals. ... [M]uch of this decline in population since 1970 resulted from White Flight.

... As late as 1970, the city was 98.5 percent White, but the racial make-up of the city began to change soon after 1970. In 1980, Whites made up 85 percent of the population. In 1990, Whites were 74 percent of the population. Between 1990 and 2000, the White population declined from 74 percent to 45 percent, and African Americans became a majority in the city at 52 percent of the population for the first time. The demographic shift continued between 2000 and 2010, with Whites making up 29 percent of the population and African Americans 69 percent. So Ferguson was an exclusively White enclave since its inception through most of the 20th century. Why? And why, in one generation, did the racial demographics of the city change?

The answer to our questions can be found in the past. St. Louis is infamous for its racial segregation. As Colin Gordon [author of Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City] states, 'St. Louis retained (decade after decade) its dubious distinction as one of the nation’s most segregated metropolitan areas.' And as Gordon points out ..., it was through private discrimination and public policy that African Americans were confined to certain sections of our metropolitan area.

Two main methods of private discrimination in St. Louis during the early and mid-20th century were restrictive deed covenants and the conduct of realtors.

A restrictive covenant is a clause placed into the deed of a property. These are often used. For instance, environmentalists may place into their deed a restrictive covenant prohibiting any future owner of the property from building on the land. But in the 20th century, Whites used restrictive covenants to keep African Americans out of their neighborhoods. An individual would sell his home on the condition that the property would never be sold to a person of color.

This agreement was written into the deed and was binding on all future owners, guaranteeing that the property would never be owned by an African American. These restrictive deed covenants were widely used in St. Louis. In 1948 the Supreme Court began chipping away at the legality of restrictive covenants in Shelly v Kraemer, which was a case from St. Louis.

Restrictive deed covenants were effectively used by Whites to isolate African Americans to small sections of the city of St. Louis and an even smaller section of St. Louis county ... between 1940 and 1950 ... [producing] White flight from the central city into the first ring of suburban cities  [Ville, Berkeley, Kinloch, Ferguson] in the county.

... The entire association of real estate agents also conspired to keep African Americans out of White communities. One of the earliest professional codes for real estate agents explicitly called for agents to discriminate against African Americans. This professional code of conduct adopted in 1924 said real estate agents should 'never introduce into a neighborhood members of any race who will lower property values.' This exact same language was adopted by the St. Louis Real Estate Exchange and used until the 1940s. Another publication written in 1943 warned realtors against 'a colored man of means who was giving his children a college education and thought they were entitled to live among whites … Then certainly the well-meaning broker must work against [the sale’s] consummation.' Progressive real estate agents willing to assist in the rental or purchase of a home by an African American outside the designated areas for African Americans, 'stood to lose their licenses. Both the City’s Real Estate Exchange and the Missouri Real Estate commission routinely and openly interpreted sales to blacks in white areas as a form of professional misconduct,' writes Colin Gordon. The St. Louis City Real Estate Exchange openly opposed the sale of property to African Americans into the late 1950’s. The message was made very clearly: keep African Americans out of White neighborhoods.

And for the most part, that message was followed .... Between 1950 and 1960, Whites left the City of St. Louis in large numbers, even where there was no increase in African Americans. Ferguson became increasingly White, and African Americans in the county remained confined almost exclusively to Kinloch with the exception of a small section of Berkeley which was contiguous to Kinloch.

Between 1960 and 1970, Kinloch was emptying and African Americans were increasing in the adjacent city of Berkeley. University City was experiencing White flight and an increase in African Americans. Ferguson remained predominantly White. However, ... by 1970, the Supreme Court had made all restrictive deed covenants illegal and discrimination by real estate professionals was diminishing, though still present.

After private forms of discrimination became illegal, public policy became the main way to keep African Americans out of areas. This was done through zoning codes that required homes to be built on large lots, which meant large and expensive homes would be built. This form of segregation is called exclusionary zoning and is very hard to change once homes are built. ...  [L]arge-lot zoning in Ladue created a divide between north and south St. Louis County. ... Ferguson experienced its first wave of White flight and an increase in African Americans.

The City of Ladue is dominated by zones for large residential lots. Furthermore, the city expressly prohibits multi-family units. As late as 1970, 57 percent of African-Americans in the St. Louis Metropolitan Area lived in multi-family units. City officials had long understood, that using public policy to limit the construction of multi-family units was a way to keep poor people, particularly poor people of color, out. In 1939, a Ladue city official stated, 'There is more than ample opportunity for apartment house construction to meet the needs of the whole St. Louis region in the City of St. Louis and in certain other suburban communities without the necessity of introducing it into the City of Ladue, where the overwhelming majority of people own their own homes and where they have come in the hope that they could avoid this class of urban development.' Race is never mentioned; officials and individuals can instead say they don’t want a certain type of 'urban development.'

Interestingly, Ferguson also used public policy to try to keep African Americans out. In 1956 the City of Ferguson revised its zoning ordinance, and, in the new codes, it eliminated all multi-family zones, limiting multi-family units to those already built. Unlike Ladue, though, Ferguson is not dominated by large lots. Instead, the City of Ferguson is dominated by small lots of more affordable homes.

... The median housing price in Ferguson is $93,700; the median housing price in Ladue is $710,500. Median household income for Ladue is $176,369. Median household income for Ferguson $38,685. Twenty-five percent of the population of Ferguson lives below the poverty line. Twenty-four percent of the housing units in Ferguson are now multi-family, and home ownership is 59 percent. Ladue still has 0 multifamily units and a home ownership rate of 96 percent. These statistics highlight the economic segregation existing within our city, which has strong racial overtones, and which has contributed to separate societies where many people of color feel disenfranchised, actively and literally kept out of the larger society. 

It was these societies that met on Canfield Drive on August 9 — the police officer who enjoyed white privilege and represented society that had so actively shunned and discriminated against African Americans and the youth who was a member of the other society that had been disenfranchised. The underlying tensions between the separate societies we have created have deep and multi-layered roots. I have explained just one root, discrimination in housing. Others will explain more roots, such as limited economic opportunities that furthered the separation between African Americans and Whites."