Redlining Madison: Expert describes how cities were designed to put people of color at disadvantage

Systemic racism has deep roots and Madison fits the trend for discriminatory zoning and housing

MADISON, Wis. — Systemic racism has deep roots in history and Madison fits the trend for cities with discriminatory zoning and housing.

Paige Glotzer, an expert on housing segregation at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said Black people have been placed at a disadvantage in many ways, including the way our city was designed and redlined in the 1930s.

“Redlining began as a government policy during the New Deal in the 1930s,” she said. “There was an agency called the Homeowners Loan Association that would bail out homeowners who couldn’t pay their mortgages but they had to decide which mortgages they would bail out. So they took a bunch of data and made maps in a bunch of different neighborhoods in over 200 cities and decided the areas they were going to help. The areas they were not going to help were redlined. They were actually colored in red on the maps. One of the criteria that they used was race. It’s very common the redlined areas were redlined, in part, because there were people who weren’t white. They didn’t receive this really crucial assistance during the Great Depression. Then, it snowballed.”

Glotzer said at the end of World War II, when the American Dream became being able to own a house with a good federally backed mortgage, only white people had access to that, which led to a huge divergence “between who was able to accrue wealth in the United States and who was at a huge disadvantage.”

Redlining determined which neighborhoods were worthy of resources. According to this map showing how Madison was redlined, we can still see many of the impacts in Madison today. The red areas were designed to have lower property values, a lack of modern conveniences, undesirable businesses and industries and unpromising future literally transcribed in the original plans.

On that same map, the blue and green areas were meant to be the more desirable, wealthier places to live. The areas highlighted in those colors tended to be newer areas with good transportation, access to many conveniences, good opportunities for growth, etc.

To this day, Glotzer said redlining is one of the main causes of inequality, but there are solutions she offered that she said Madisonians have to be willing to try.

“Really focusing on equity as a priority in the planning process might mean not prioritizing places with good property values, it might mean rethinking how planning boards or community input is organized. It might be as simple as being able to scheduling meetings at times when people can attend them or provide childcare options so people might actually be able to attend them. It starts with listening to people who live in disadvantaged communities.”