Racial Trustbuilding spearheads book discussion on racism’s effects on housing

Published 9:00 am Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Last Wednesday, attendees to the first of a four-week book club centered around a highly acclaimed, albeit, controversial book, were given a very specific warning: the content may be uncomfortable, but one that needed to be had to understand how decades-long issues continue to affect modern society.

The book, “The Color of Law,” incorporates the history of racial segregation in housing and how, despite modest progress, the issue is dominant in modern times, including in areas like Troup County. Written in 2017 by Richard Rothstein, ”The Color of Law” explores the history of how some neighborhoods are almost exclusively African American while others are almost exclusively white. Rothstein notes this separation as the result of explicit government policy rather than personal choice and random chance.

Held at Pretty Good Books in downtown LaGrange, the discussion featured the leadership and comments of LaGrange Housing Authority (LHA) CEO Zsa Zsa Heard, Racial Trustbuilding Inc. Executive Director Chalton Askew, DASH Executive Director Nate Crawford and City of LaGrange Community Development Director Alton West — heads in the community who deal with the positive and negative of public housing daily.

The book club will meet again on Wednesdays from 11:45 a.m. to 1:15 p.m. on June 8, 15 and 22.

By definition, public housing is housing with government subsidies attached, Heard explained. The government will pay a portion of the housing needs while the renter pays another portion. The LHA, for example, bases costs off 30% of a renter’s income. 

In The Color of Law, Rothstein talks about how public housing was formed during the great world wars for the working middle class, specifically white residents.

But, as more Black people began to join the war efforts, more housing was created.

However, segregation laws and unspoken expectations of the time prevented Black residents from living in primarily white-populated areas.

“If you black, you had to live 30 to 40 miles away from where you worked,” Heard said.

“When the wars ended and white people were able to get on their feet, they moved out of that public housing and then allowed Blacks to move in. But, they took away the maintenance and other [workers] that kept it clean. So that public housing becomes [slums.] As a black person who made lower than minimum wage, I can’t repair my door or my lights and that building becomes deteriorated.”

In terms of home ownership, Heard, pulling information from the book, said acquiring homes in safe areas was just as hard for Black people.

“White people moved out and put there houses up for sale while Blacks moved in and had to pay a higher rate for a house and couldn’t afford to fix those,” she said.

As noted in LaGrange City Council meetings dating back to March 14, 1941, the then city council established the LaGrange Housing Authority, citing the existence of unsanitary or unsafe dwelling accommodations that residents of low income are forced to reside in and the shortage of safer, more affordable housing. In LaGrange, public housing for white residents was available at the formerly named Benjamin Harvey Hill Road Homes on Whitesville Road, Heard said. The LHA renamed the residence Phoenix Landing Apartments in 2019. The Lucy Morgan Apartments on Borton St. were originally designated Black apartments and still exist today, Heard noted.

Addressing the issue of safe affordable housing continues to be a discussion among the LHA and city leaders as talks of commercial development and population growth continue as well. Heard said the LHA includes city and county heads on their projects constantly, though with entities like the city not being ‘in the housing business’ the responsibility doesn’t necessarily fall on local government. 

“We’re in the negative for quality housing [in LaGrange,]” Heard said. “We at the housing authority don’t build anything that we wouldn’t live in. We have to make the steps [for better housing] but it can’t just be the housing authority. It has to be private and public [landlords]. We all have to be on the same guidelines.”

From a local government standpoint, there has been some progress to alleviate the lack of housing in the area, West said. 

In 2021, the city updated a new zoning ordinance allowing more flexibility in terms of renting on traditional single-family ordinances.

West noted the new ordinance allows more housing options. Prior to the ordinance, only single-family residential residents were allowed on R1-zoned property. The updated ordinance allowed for traditional-neighborhood housing on R1-zoned properties, meaning a single-family residence could include potentially a rentable attachment on their property.

“It ultimately allows for more income to come into that household,” West said.