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A Segregated City

The Buffalo Niagara region remains one of the most racially divided metro areas in the country, but a new housing rule on Capitol Hill could soon change the way we see communities.

WGRZ Staff

Published: 7/9/2015 8:55:28 PM
Updated: 8:55 PM EDT July 9, 2015

In the 1960s, as the Civil Rights Movement came to a close, Congress took one last major legislative step and banned housing discrimination based on race, color, religion and sex.

Still, despite the decades-old law to protect people from discrimination in the sale, rental and financing of homes, it did little to actually integrate neighborhoods across the nation.

"The truth is for too long federal efforts have fallen short," said Julian Castro, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) in Chicago, a city like Buffalo that has struggled with segregation for years.

It was the summer of 1965 when the whispers began. A civil rights campaign was coming north to build support in the fight for black freedom. Schools were segregated and African Americans seemed stuck in the slums of northern cities.

But in January 1966, that campaign arrived. A reverend and his family had moved into a dingy apartment on Chicago's West Side. His name was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, and just like that the Open Housing Movement had begun.

For several months, King would lead marches in the streets of Chicago, calling for fair housing in the city, and by late August some progress was made. The Chicago Housing Authority promised to build public housing with limited height requirements, and a banking association agreed to make mortgages available regardless of race. According to King, it was "the first step in a 1,000-mile journey."

That journey ended in April 1968.

On April 4th, King was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee. Six days later, the House of Representatives passed Title VIII of the proposed Civil Rights Act and the next day President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act into law.

But now, nearly fifty years later, many neighborhoods are still segregated across the country, especially in the northeast.

Today, many metro areas continue to sort themselves into separate communities based on race. But Buffalo is seeing black and white far more than most.

According to an analysis of the 2010 U.S. Census, the Buffalo Niagara region ranks sixth on the list of most segregated metro areas. The Queen City falls just slightly behind Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, and New York City with Milwaukee marked as the most racially divided region in the country.

Back here in Buffalo, more than 85 percent of the East Side is African American. Compare that to most of the rest of Erie and Niagara counties where the population is more than 85 percent white.

So what's the solution to the split?

On Wednesday, the Obama administration announced a new rule aimed at fulfilling the Fair Housing Act and its promise to promote integration.

Under the rule, cities that accept federal housing funds will be required to study data and propose measures to reduce segregation. If they don't, they risk forfeiting their funding from HUD.

Still, the new rule does not address all issues with fair housing. For instance, the act lacks the money to provide additional affordable housing, which is still not required in wealthier communities that don't rely on HUD's funds.

So how do local leaders feel about this?

"We think it's a good idea," said City of Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown. "We think that strategies that can be employed to reduce segregation in communities, particularly with the use of federal funds, is a good thing."

But it's going to take some work.

"The city has begun to do this work where we have been mapping our neighborhoods, we have been looking at the diversity of neighborhoods as part of our housing strategy," Brown said. "We want to make sure that we are building neighborhoods that are attractive to people of different incomes whether they are lower income, middle income or upper income. We'd like to see a whole range of incomes represented in neighborhoods throughout the city."

"I totally understand the heart of the idea," said Buffalo Common Council President Darius Pridgen. "But I'm not sure how you make it happen."

Some have suggested passing a local law requiring a portion of affordable housing to be set aside in housing developments built in all neighborhoods. It's a strategy the mayor says the city is looking into.

But Pridgen is leery in one respect.

"Connecting this to (the continued flow of) federal dollars is something I'm very uncomfortable with. What happens if Buffalo has a plan, and is then not able to meet the plan because of the culture of Buffalo... a city where people choose to live where they want to live? Holding money in limbo if a city doesn't do it is a tad bit unfair, because those monies that we get from the federal government usually help the poor, and I would not want to see the poor get hurt."

Attempts to force diversification also raise the thornier issue of the federal government centrally planning communities, based on what it thinks they should look like, through what critics call federal neighborhood engineering.