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Examining restrictive housing covenants and racism in real estate in Milwaukee County

Milwaukee housing
Marti Mikkelson
Racial covenants have had a lasting impact on homeownership in the Milwaukee area.

Segregation has come to define many neighborhoods here in Milwaukee. When looking at a variety of measures including housing, schools, and health outcomes, the Milwaukee area is considered one of the most segregated communities in the country. Still, understanding how it got this way can be complicated, and it didn’t happen all at once — as Dr. Derek Handley and Dr. Anne Bonds are exploring.

Together, they’re working on mapping out racism in real estate in Milwaukee County, the history of resistance to it, and the lasting impact on the Black community.

Bonds, who has a Ph.D. in geography, starts, "For our project, we've been focused specifically on the role of racial covenants, restrictive covenants in producing racial exclusion and housing markets in Milwaukee County. In the first half of the 20th century, racial covenants prohibited non-white people from buying or occupying certain parcels of land or housing."

Their project is tracking and mapping racial covenants in Milwaukee County to better understand how racism has been embedded into the area's housing markets.

Racially restrictive covenants began appearing in deeds at the turn of the century throughout the U.S. They became increasingly popular following the 1917 Supreme Court decision in the case of Buchanan v. Warley, which outlawed municipal racial zoning. Bonds says by 1928 over half of all homes owned by white people in the U.S. were covenanted.

Handley, who has an Ph.D. in English, adds the African American community was aware of these practices and did respond. Several organizations formed to fight against the covenants. "You have local institutions being formed as well as national organizations ... like the Urban League, the NAACP, fighting against these covenants," he says.

The covenants created a wealth gap in the '70s and early '80s as well, Handley says. The loss of manufacturing jobs and jobs relocating to the suburbs prevented people from finding and getting to work.

"That economic base for a lot of African Americans was taken away, and you have these communities that were segregated, being able to afford to live in some of these neighborhoods make it difficult for some people. So there are a variety of factors, there is not just one factor. But the result is the same — there is segregation, housing segregation in Milwaukee County, and this developed over decades," he says.

Bonds says racial covenants have had a lasting impact on homeownership in Milwaukee. She says, "We see the reflection of these exclusions to housing markets continue on. Currently, Milwaukee has the second-lowest rate of Black homeownership among the nation's largest metropolitan areas. Also, the Milwaukee county area has the lowest rate of Black suburbanization in the country. The Milwaukee suburbs are predominantly white. Just 10% of the suburban population in Milwaukee County is Black."

People living in Milwaukee are used to hearing the city is segregated, but Bonds hopes their work will help them understand how complex of an issue it is. "I think oftentimes, people fall into kind of more simple explanations of segregation that has to do primarily with affordability of different neighborhoods or class dynamics. I think when people actually see covenants, and understand that they were used pervasively throughout the county, that it kind of illustrates the way that racist attitudes were institutionalized in the United States and I think it's very powerful," she says.

Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Kobe Brown was WUWM's fifth Eric Von fellow.
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