How can Albany bridge its racial wealth gap? – Albany Times Union

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This story is part of "A City Divided," a series examining how Albany became divided along racial lines. 

The renter came into Virginia Rawlins' office, sat down and waited to be convinced that the dream of owning a home was within reach.

“You can do this,” Rawlins recalled telling one woman who wanted to buy a house but found herself fixated on the systemic barriers that made it difficult. "It's possible."

Rawlins, the founder of the real estate company Building Blocks, has told many other renters of color the same thing.

For some Black residents in Albany wanting to buy a home, there exists a justified fear of failure. No one Rawlins has worked with has received a loan from a bank. Many struggle to even get a grant — sometimes because the application process is too difficult, Rawlins said, and other times because it can be discriminatory.

Rawlins' clients have ample reasons to be pessimistic: In Albany, 69 percent of white residents own homes but only 20 percent of Black residents do. It's one of the ways in which people of color are impeded from building wealth over generations.

“Besides the mental obstacles, there’s the systemic issues, like redlining and the segregation that ensued, and the decades of inaction on the part of our government,” Rawlins said.

Redlining began in the 1930s as part of a Depression-era federal survey of American cities to determine the relative risk of real estate investment in certain neighborhoods. Those deemed "hazardous" for such investment were shaded in red. The Albany neighborhoods redlined in 1938 maps were West Hill, Arbor Hill and the South End — areas that at the time were dominated by lower-income white European immigrants but later became home to the city's highest concentrations of Black residents.

Redlining codified the biases of bankers and the real estate industry and had the practical effect of establishing borders that keep the city racially divided and economically unequal. As white residents departed for the suburbs in the second half of the century, Black residents saw redlining evolve into systemic racism and financial inequities. 

How can nearly a century of damage be remedied? While there is no cure-all, one answer was resounding among real estate professionals, real estate lawyers, city officials and others: boosting Black homeownership through grants and anti-racist lending practices.

Virginia Rawlins is pictured on First Street on Monday, May 10, 2021, in Albany, N.Y. Rawlins is the founder of a real estate company that aims to increase homeownership among people of color in the city. (Will Waldron/Times Union)
Virginia Rawlins is pictured on First Street on Monday, May 10, 2021, in Albany, N.Y. Rawlins is the founder of a real estate company that aims to increase homeownership among people of color in the city. (Will Waldron/Times Union)Will Waldron/Albany Times Union

“You’re not addressing the issue if you're not creating homeownership,” Rawlins said.

Serena Joyce White-Lake, an attorney and licensed real estate broker who teaches classes on racially discriminatory housing practices at Albany Law School, said passing policies that will help Black people buy their homes is the best way out of this problem.

“No individual would be able to change this,” White-Lake said, emphasizing that the federal government has a moral obligation to remedy the racist policies of the past. “We need to fund housing … invest in Black-owned businesses and find ways to support African Americans who are trying to be entrepreneurs and ... creatives" as well as supporting better educational opportunities in science, technology, education and math — the STEM subjects that prepare students for higher-income careers.

White-Lake also said that all citizens need to support neighborhood integration by urging officials to pass policies such as expanded housing grants that will make the city more equitable.

As a Black man in the real estate business, Irvin Ackerman said he’s seen and heard stories of Black homebuyers being steered away from the suburbs. “Some white realtors will basically say, ‘Oh, you won’t like it over there,’” he said.

One major way municipalities miss the mark, many said, is by focusing too much on “low-income housing,” which is in fact low-income renting that never allows people to build equity.

“For the longest time, there hasn’t been enough emphasis on creating affordable homeownership opportunities,” said Charles Touhey, chairman of the Albany County Land Bank, which works to renovate blighted buildings and put them back on the market. Touhey has worked as an affordable homeownership developer in the city for five decades.

Elaine Frazier, who chairs the board of the Capital Area Urban League, said that city leaders confronted with Albany's lack of homeownership opportunities for Black residents tend to defend the status quo by saying they are looking for people who are economically viable.

A man collects bottles from along Clinton Ave., in the West Hill neighborhood, on Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in Albany, N.Y. The red sign with the white X on it is a marking to alert firefighters the structure is abandoned and to not enter the building because it is unsafe. (Paul Buckowski/Times Union)
A man collects bottles from along Clinton Ave., in the West Hill neighborhood, on Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in Albany, N.Y. The red sign with the white X on it is a marking to alert firefighters the structure is abandoned and to not enter the building because it is unsafe. (Paul Buckowski/Times Union)Paul Buckowski/Albany Times Union

Role of governments

“Well, one of the ways you can make somebody economically viable is to sell property to them at a below-market rate, help them improve it and then — oh my goodness! — they have economic sustainability,” Frazier said. “That is not the path the city chose.”

Former Mayor Jerry Jennings, for example, helped develop more subsidized public housing, such as North Albany Homes, but he never made increasing homeownership among communities of color a priority, Touhey and other real estate developers said. (Jennings did not respond to a request for an interview.) 

His predecessor, Thomas Whalen, focused on renovating public housing complexes like the South End's Steamboat Square and creating low-income rentals. And Erastus Corning II, Albany’s longest-serving mayor, allied himself with Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to pursue policies that exacerbated segregation by class and race by constructing the Empire State Plaza, which displaced at least 7,000 residents.

While Albany politics certainly played a role in sustaining and worsening segregation, though, Mayor Kathy Sheehan points to the federal government as the driving force behind the level of racial divisions that exist in the community today.

“I do think that asking cities to fix a problem that was created by the federal government, by banks, by racist decisions in institutions that continue to have disproportionate impacts today is almost like blaming the victim,” said Sheehan, who in recent years moved to a rehabbed home in Arbor Hill. “When people hear me advocating for federal solutions to these problems, it's because the federal government has the ability to deficit-spend, which cities do not have.”

But the city is also historically complicit in failing to address economic disparities, Sheehan acknowledged. That's why a question that gets repeated often in her office is “What do we have control over?”

"We have control over the streets that we pave, the sidewalks that we repair, in addition to our parks," she said. "The city didn't create redlining, but the (historic) lack of investment in our city infrastructure follows the pattern of redlining."

She ticked off elements of the city's focus on equity: Instead of repaving the same number of streets in each ward, it's placing more resources into repairing more severely damaged roads that tend to be in the redlined areas, as well as the asphalt sidewalks in West Hill. The city is also upgrading playgrounds in West Hill, Arbor Hill and the South End.

This focus was also seen in last month’s rollout of the city’s plan to promote more bike- and pedestrian-friendly infrastructure, a blueprint that emphasized the need to make a community where people without cars can commute or exercise safely. It’s a plan that depends on significant state and federal investment.

Volunteers and employees of the Albany County Land Bank clean up a lot on South Pearl Street owned by the land bank on Monday, April 22, 2019, in Albany, N.Y. (Paul Buckowski/Times Union)
Volunteers and employees of the Albany County Land Bank clean up a lot on South Pearl Street owned by the land bank on Monday, April 22, 2019, in Albany, N.Y. (Paul Buckowski/Times Union)Paul Buckowski/Albany Times Union

The Albany County Land Bank is trying to increase homeownership rates by either tearing down or renovating dilapidated buildings that it acquires through foreclosures, and then selling them cheaply to residents and developers who promise to create or become responsible homeowners. But some residents said the land bank needs to improve its selection methods and do a better job of selling more properties to Black residents.

And while different grants may be available to support aspiring homeowners in the Albany area, some say it's the systems and policies at play — such as subpar or predatory loans — that need to be transformed to grow long-term equity and wealth for Black residents.

"At the end of the day, there are still Black families paying more in terms of homeownership than their white neighbors for the same exact house ... yet they’re also receiving appraisals at a much lower amount once they purchase it," said Alfredo Medina, vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion and college diversity officer at Vermont's Bennington College. "Until you address these systems and policies that really go against Black homeownership, all you’re doing is creating what I consider to be sort of substandard homeownership that is going to force many of those Black families to eventually have to leave those communities because they can’t afford it long-term."

Treating the symptoms

But if residential segregation is the primary disease, quality-of-life deficiencies in formerly redlined areas are symptoms with varying degrees of lethality.

Many community leaders say that treating those symptoms is a necessary part achieving meaningful and lasting integration. The contrast in available resources and opportunities among Albany’s neighborhoods is impossible to ignore for some from the city — particularly those who grew up in underserved areas. 

Education is widely recognized as being a key for social mobility. Yet school districts in the predominantly white suburbs are notorious for being more desirable than those in urban areas which are predominantly Black — meaning many students of color don't have access to that higher-quality education.

"This comes down to the powers within systems and policies, because they are designed in a way to basically promote those (suburban) school districts because of the higher taxes that are being paid, and we penalize those that are paying a lot lower in school taxes," Medina said. "This is just another way of ensuring that segregation exists. Because if we really wanted to, we could change those policies and systems that keep disproportionality between schools in the City of Albany and schools in (the suburbs)."

The lack of resources and opportunity crop up in other aspects of daily life, as well. 

When Carolyn McLaughlin was growing up in the South End, there were several organizations and gathering places for her and her peers: Trinity Alliance, a boys club and the South End Teen Center to name a few. But while Trinity is still going strong as it approaches its 109th birthday next month, other organizations and community centers have disappeared over the years.

"Kids had nowhere to go," the Albany County legislator and former city councilwoman said. "You tore down the only teen center that was in the South End over 20 years ago. You didn't replace it with anything. And in that time, don't tell me you couldn't have come up with $1 million a year to put up another building. Come on."

McLaughlin says consistent, sustained investment in communities — whether that be in community centers or a grocery store — aided by funding from federal, state and local sources is what needs to be done to alleviate these drastic socioeconomic inequities.

"The problem here is the effort is not being placed in the proper space to make the changes that are necessary," she said. "You can't be a one-and-done; you have to be consistent. One project is not going to change a whole community."

The city of Albany is slated to receive $85 million from the federal government for COVID-19 relief, which many residents are pointing to as an opportunity to increase investment in projects that will level inequities. During a recent mayoral debate, Sheehan did not reveal her own plans for the funding, but said she plans to do participatory budgeting with residents to determine where it should go. (Albany County is also receiving nearly $60 million.)

"How do we use this once-in-a-generation money to create that generational wealth? Can we take care of the city's blight while creating jobs or contractors, local businesses, training programs for Black and brown youth to rehab these vacant apartments?" said Lauren Manning, assistant director of Albany's Center for Law and Justice, in a recent meeting of the South End Community Collaborative. "It can all be a cycle of creating generational wealth; it's just (a question of) do we have the will to use this once-in-a-generation money to promote that?"

Paul Collins-Hackett, executive director of the Red Bookshelf and secretary of the Community Police Review Board, is one of those who grew up in Albany and has always understood its segregationist borders. For Collins-Hackett, a tangible, immediate move the city could make to address such disparities is partnering with organizations such as Building Blocks that aim to increase homeownership rates for Black residents. 

While rectifying segregation is no easy feat, though, he believes achieving economic racial equity is still attainable.

“For me, it’s the idea of one brick: Focus on placing one brick absolutely perfectly,” Collins-Hackett said.

“It takes incremental progress at times. It takes every bit of effort," he continued. "Because at the end of the day, anything positive we’re doing that’s a step in the right direction, it cannot be taken away.”

Special report

A City Divided

How New York's capital city splintered along racial lines

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