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50 years later: What kinds of improvements have been made in housing since the Fair Housing Act?

Jason Purnell (left) and Will Jordan (right) discuss current housing inequities in the St. Louis region.
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
Jason Purnell (left) and Will Jordan (right) discuss current housing inequities in the St. Louis region.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act. But how far has equitable housing come in St. Louis? The Delmar Divide is among the most noticeable forms of housing segregation in the area.

On Tuesday’s St. Louis on the Air, host Don Marsh talked about a new report on segregation in housing in the St. Louis region. On April 25, the Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing Opportunity Council and the For the Sake of All partnership will address the issue at the Fair Housing Conference held at the University of Missouri-St. Louis (UMSL).

A new community For the Sake of All report, “Segregated in St. Louis: Dismantling the Divide,” will be released at the sold-out conference to provide recommendations for eliminating housing inequities.

Joining the discussion were Jason Purnell, associate professor of Public Health, Brown School of Social Work at Washington University, and Will Jordan, executive director of Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing Opportunity Council.

Jordan said the state of housing and inequity in St. Louis is “a little worse than they were in the 1960s.”

“That’s unfortunate,” Jordan said. “Even though the promise of fair housing is still out there with the law, what we have is somewhat of a political decision to not see it as much of a crisis as it it is in our inner cities.”

Also joining the discussion was Richard Rothstein, distinguished fellow at Economic Policy Institute and author of "The Color of Law A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America." He will be the upcoming conference’s keynote speaker.

Rothstein said segregated housing impacts citizens’ health, education, the ability to accumulate wealth, as well as “the social fabric of St. Louis.” He explained the history of unconstitutional segregation in the region and country with examples of public policies passed that subsidized all-white suburbs and excluded black Americans.

“We’ve forgotten this history and unless we re-learn it, we’re not going to be able to address it,” Rothstein said. He indicated that the Fair Housing Act didn’t have much of an impact on housing inequities since it didn’t undo the government's “powerful policies” which locked people in segregated communities.

Purnell said it’s important to look at the issue of housing policies beyond the Fair Housing Act.

“We’re talking about over 100 years of housing policy,” Purnell said. “We’re innovators in segregation here in St. Louis. And that has had a lasting impact -- it still structures the way we live today.” He referred to the 1916 racial zoning ordinance, which prevented people from moving to an area where more than 75 percent of the residents were of another race.

Jordan said the information from the For the Sake of All studies is “eye-opening” and can help start more understanding about the continued racial divide in the city.

Purnell explained that ignorance regarding the matter is due to the lack of education and conversations about the segregation.

“It’s not simply that people have ignored this history -- a lot of people don't know this history. I never learned about any of this ... from grade school all the way through college,” he said. “I believe [education is] going to be a crucial part of it but there will also be calls-to-action tied to the report.”

Among the recommendations that stand out to Jordan are the establishment of an affordable housing commission in the county and income protection that would allow people to pay their rent, regardless of the source of income.

“We definitely have it in the city but we would love to have it in the county,” he said.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary EdwardsAlex HeuerEvie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region.

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Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.