This article is the first article of Community Strategies for Systemic Change, a series that is being co-produced by the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) and NPQ. In the series, urban and rural grassroots leaders from across the United States share how their communities are developing and implementing strategies—grounded in local places, cultures, and histories—to shift power and achieve systemic change.
When it comes to addressing structural racism, the failure of national politics in the United States is plain to see. The Black-white wealth gap remains unchanged after half a century. The Black homeownership rate is about the same as it was when the National Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968. At 42 percent, it is about 30 percentage points lower than that of whites. Many of the practices used to segregate communities, like single family zoning and the price comparison approach for home appraisals, are still in place.
We assume the power and authority that government and corporate leaders possess necessitate not only their involvement in policy formation, but also their initiation of it. We suppose that rules and laws can easily change with a stroke of a leader’s pen, but the snail’s pace of change suggests that leadership at the top is conflicted and restrained—that most leaders lack the will to eliminate stubborn wealth gaps. In short, change that benefits the majority is unlikely to come from the top.
For change to occur, we should look to civic action happening on the ground. With regards to housing policy, for example, much of existing civil rights legislation was passed in response to organized local pressure. In other words, change came to Washington, D.C., not from it.
Corporations that have announced their support for racial justice have most often backed into such declarations. This was exactly what occurred with the flurry of corporate commitments made after the mass uprising that followed the murder of George Floyd in 2020. More often than not, government and corporate action comes at the end of a process led by civic action, not at the beginning.
How Policy Change Occurs: A Housing Justice Example
The small steps forward that we’ve taken recently to improve access to housing illustrate that civic action is indeed a leading catalyst for systemic change, even if that is not typically how the press portrays social change.
Take housing appraisals, a field in which I have been deeply involved. In the conventional account, the Biden administration is driving new federal policy, starting with an address made by Biden to mark the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre, during which he announced that his administration would launch “an aggressive effort to combat racial discrimination in housing. That includes everything from redlining to the cruel fact that a home owned by a Black family is too often appraised at a lower value than a similar home owned by a white family.”
Biden’s announcement resulted in the formation of the Property Appraisal and Valuation Equity (PAVE) Task Force, a first-of-its-kind interagency effort to address racial bias in home appraisals. This past March, PAVE released its final action plan, the most wide-ranging set of reforms ever put forward to advance equity in the home appraisal process. The plan lays out 21 actions to be taken by 13 federal agencies, including the development of new rules to remove discrimination from every stage of the home valuation process and efforts to build a more diverse home appraiser workforce.
On the surface, it would seem that the federal government is taking the lead to force an overdue reckoning in the real estate industry. However, this leaves out a critical question: why now?
Certainly, people have been making calls to end racial bias in appraising since redlining first became common practice in the early 20th century. To understand why, 54 years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, the federal government is finally taking action to address discrimination in real estate appraisals requires looking to the grassroots organizations and individuals that together forced Biden’s hand.
The Story behind the Story
In 2018, I started researching my hometown of Wilkinsburg, PA—a struggling, small, majority-Black, inner-ring suburb surrounded by Pittsburgh on three sides. At a townhall to announce my research efforts, residents asked me to examine home values in the area. Many felt there were inaccuracies. After responding to inquiries from the community, my colleagues Jonathan Rothwell and David Harshbarger and I co-authored a Brookings Institution report titled The Devaluation of Assets in Black Neighborhoods. The report revealed that, on average, owner-occupied homes in Black neighborhoods are undervalued by $48,000 per home, for a cumulative loss of household wealth of $156 billion.
To put that in perspective, given the average amount of capital Black people use to start their firms, $156 billion would have provided enough capital to found more than 4.4 million businesses. It would have paid tuition for more than eight million four-year degrees from public institutions. The cumulative loss would have covered all of Hurricane Katrina damage and replaced the pipes in Flint, MI, 3,000 times.
After the report’s release, local housing advocacy groups, many affiliated with the National Fair Housing Alliance, trumpeted the research. Word spread. Homeowners had quantitative evidence to back their anecdotal experiences and feelings, and they began doing their own experiments. Black homeowners “whitewashed” their homes—replacing Black art, books, clothing, family photos, and hair products with items that signaled that a white person lived in the house. They got friends and colleagues to serve as stand-ins for a second appraisal.
Collette Duffy, an Indianapolis homeowner, whitewashed her home and got a white stand-in. She strategized with the nonprofit Fair Housing Center of Central Indiana. Her new appraisal came in $134,000 higher than an earlier one. The nonprofit announced in May 2021 that it had filed a federal housing discrimination complaint on Duffy’s behalf.
Local media picked up dozens of these stories from across the nation—ranging from Marin County, CA, which is over 70 percent white and where the median home value exceeds $1 million, to Prince George’s County, MD, once the most prosperous majority African-American county in the country.
These local efforts were part of grassroots movements that were afoot before and during Biden’s presidency and that led to testimony in Congress by national groups, local activists, and researchers (I was among those who testified)—as well as lawsuits in home communities.
Thanks to this movement, biased appraisals became a campaign issue in the 2020 elections. Democratic nominee Biden picked up the housing issue, citing the research and pointing to the impact of devalued appraisals on maintaining housing discrimination across the country. Simply put: PAVE would not have happened without civic action.
Not All Civic Action Is in the Direction of Justice
The PAVE effort’s grassroots origins should not be surprising. Grassroots organizing has always been the force that drives changes to policy—for good or for bad. An example of the latter: for most of US history, it was legal to discriminate against Black people in housing because of grassroots, local efforts—by white people.
Baltimore’s housing policy in 1910, heavily promoted by white homeowners’ associations, became a model for racial housing covenants and for redlining – ie, the denial of home loans and insurance to communities of color. Baltimore’s then Mayor J. Barry Mahool’s negative view of Black people was laid bare in his explanation of the policy: “Blacks should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidence of civil disturbance, to prevent the spread of communicable disease into the nearby white neighborhoods, and to protect property values among the white majority.”
Baltimore was, as a university thesis notes, the “first the first city in the United States to write into law residential segregation ordinances that banned Blacks and whites from living side by side.” From Baltimore, redlining spread across the country. During the New Deal era, the federal government codified and resourced redlining, isolating Black people in areas that would suffer lower levels of investment than white neighborhoods. Again, lasting ideas go to Washington. They do not emerge from it.
Some Principles Behind How to Achieve Systemic Change
So, what is the connection between community action and systemic change? This question may not have a definitive answer, but some themes are apparent. Here are a few:
- Durable policy results from empowered civic action. If structural inequality and racial gaps could be eliminated with the stroke of a pen, this would have occurred already. People in power ostensibly don’t have the will, capacity, or wherewithal to make the kinds of radical shifts needed to remove the biases their predecessors created. Elite decisionmakers need ideas and pressure from external sources. We should assume that actions made by those at the top very often are simply a response to the shift in power created by organizing from below.
- Research that is grounded in lived experiences can drive structural change. Research can be esoteric. Too often, scholars respond to elite policymakers who don’t experience the issues faced by their constituencies. Policy research that seeks structural change must center everyday people or it will likely reinforce the status quo.
- Civic action is more likely to succeed if it is validated by fact-based authorities. Anecdotal evidence is good, but it is often insufficient to dismantle biased policy. Universities, think tanks, and fact-based institutions are powerful validators that often sway policy decisions—as has been the case with the appraisal research I described above. However, this is not to deny that many scholars produce shoddy research that supports the status quo. Many of the racist policies of the past were endorsed by researchers.
- Organize and mobilize. Local nonprofit groups can help organize individuals affected by an issue in order to make the media and politicians aware of the issue, along with organizers who can connect individuals’ concerns with a broader movement.
- Recognize that not all grassroots organizing is progressive. Grassroots organizers are portrayed as being progressive agents of the so-called Left. Yet, many NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) activists today are grassroots based but aren’t progressive. To pursue structural change in the direction of justice requires combining local action with a social justice vision. Merely being connected to a grassroots movement is not sufficient.
We are living in a period of heightened social movement. My own work on appraisals would have been ineffective if not for the fact that community organizers took the research my colleagues and I put together and ran with it.
In the stories that follow, you will hear from some of these movement voices. In some cases, the locus of action may seem hyperlocal. In other cases, the connections to national movements are obvious. Regardless, it is in community stories such as these that you will find the fundamental building blocks of systemic change.