Roanoke will not reach its full potential as a community unless each citizen has the opportunity to reach their full potential. Equity involves the fair distribution of investments and services and the removal of institutional or structural policies that can be barriers to success. Equity is the idea that different groups have different needs and should be provided services determined by their needs. If the City gives everyone equal treatment regardless of their individual needs, then it may be unintentionally creating disparate outcomes.
Visualizing Health Equity: One Size Does Not Fit All Infographic by RWJF on RWJF.org
In this plan, the term interwoven equity means that ideas about equity are woven into or embedded within each theme of the plan.
The intent of this plan is to ensure equity in our policies as they relate to race, ethnicity, age, gender, gender identity, disability, sexual orientation, and any other characteristics upon which people are discriminated against, oppressed, or disadvantaged. This plan dedicates most discussion to racial equity because of its profound impact on the physical development of the city.
A History of Inequity
Any conversation on equity must acknowledge racist policies that existed throughout the country and were present here in Roanoke. While openly racist laws may have come and gone, implicit or proxy policies took their place and some have yet to be completely left behind. The consequences of these policies are still felt today, manifested in de facto housing segregation along with persistent disparities in income, education, employment, incarceration rates, community health, and a pronounced wealth gap.
Restrictive Covenant from 1945
Throughout much of the 20th century, African Americans were subjected to a coordinated effort of government and real estate interests that limited where they could live. Jim Crow laws started spreading through the south just as Roanoke was incorporated in 1882. In 1911, Roanoke adopted residential segregation ordinances that remained in place for years until a 1917 Supreme Court decision declared such laws unconstitutional. Roanoke eventually repealed these ordinances, but private interests continued to enforce segregation effectively through private restrictive covenants in deeds and through redlining. Redlining was the practice of mortgage and mortgage insurance companies that rated neighborhoods based on perceived risk of default. “Hazardous” or “Fourth grade” classifications were given to low income neighborhoods disproportionately occupied by African American families.
These practices, individually and cumulatively, had insidious results. Limiting African American families to a relatively small area of the city and limiting the number of housing units available to them. Segregation induced scarcity which drove up rents for Black residents. For those who could get a mortgage within the redlined areas, the interest rates were much higher. Barriers to home purchase put constraints on opportunities to build wealth through home equity. Denial of those opportunities for many decades is largely responsible for today’s large wealth gap between Whites and African Americans in the United States.
The Fair Housing Act of 1968 made it illegal to discriminate in renting and selling homes but that would not be the end of racist policies. Passed nearly two decades earlier, the Federal Housing Act of 1949 allowed the federal government to aid cities in clearing what was termed as blighted conditions to allow for newer development. Ironically, the substandard conditions were usually a result of decades of municipal neglect.
Disguised as a way to help low-income blighted communities, the Federal Housing Act of 1949 paved the way for the removal of low-income minority communities for development projects that benefitted other communities. The government paid residents an average of $3,000 for their homes with a promise that new, affordable, and better houses would be built in the neighborhood for the displaced residents to purchase. However, in most cities including Roanoke, that promise was never met.
These programs often resulted in the destruction of African-American neighborhoods, perceived as blighted through biased eyes. Residents of these neighborhoods viewed these neighborhoods differently than those looking in from the outside. What may have seemed to be run down areas were actually vibrant, complete neighborhoods where residents had access to stores, pharmacies, schools — everything needed for day-to-day life. Residents knew their neighbors and there was a strong sense of community.
Bishop, Mary. “Street by street, block by block: How urban renewal uprooted black Roanoke.” The Roanoke Times (1995).
In Roanoke, neighborhood urban renewal projects were focused on the African-American neighborhoods in northeast and northwest Roanoke adjacent to downtown. All told, 83 acres were cleared for Interstate 581, the Civic Center, Post Office, Coca-Cola plant, and other commercial and industrial uses. No houses were built back in the area forcing residents to relocate to other parts of the city, primarily in the northwest sector. Residents lost wealth in the form of home equity, as homes were purchased at low dollar amounts and displaced residents were resettled, often in rental units or public housing.
Urban renewal wasn’t just a housing issue, but the displacement shattered an intangible sense of community . In Roanoke, this effect was discussed in Root Shock: How Tearing Up City Neighborhoods Hurts America and What We Can Do About It by Mindy Fullilove and documented in Mary Bishop’s special report to the Roanoke Times: How Urban Renewal Uprooted Black Roanoke.