White Iowans own their homes at nearly three times the rate of Black Iowans, one of the biggest racial homeownership gaps in the country. Nationally, this gap is wider than it was 50 years ago, because discriminatory housing policies and practices of the past and present are still hurting Black families and their ability to build generational wealth.
Bobbretta Brewton remembers when the city of Des Moines bought her family’s house to destroy it.
“I was born and raised here. And when I was 8 years old, our family was impacted by urban renewal,” Brewton said. “And it was a home that my grandmother worked really hard to buy and own, and then share with my father’s family, which included me.”
Urban renewal programs and the construction of Interstate 235 in the 1950s and 1960s cleared what city officials considered to be blighted areas or slums. But they were also neighborhoods that were home to a large share of Des Moines’ non-white residents and Black-owned businesses.
Center Street, a hub of economic activity and entertainment for Black Des Moines residents, was wiped out by highway construction. The Oakridge and River Hills urban renewal projects, as well as I-235, displaced about 1,700 families, many of them Black.
“And then when they took the houses, you didn’t necessarily get what your house was worth,” Brewton said. “So you didn’t really get a comparable one.”
The Polk County Housing Trust Fund, for its “Undesign the Redline: DSM” project, dug up past newspaper reports of Black Des Moines homeowners being forced to settle for a much smaller house or to start renting. Racial restrictions in real estate and renting made it even harder for Black families to find a new place to live.
After the move, Brewton had to go to a new school, where the teachers wrongly assumed she didn’t know how to read and put her in a lower level class. Brewton said this also broke up her close-knit neighborhood.
“There was no sensitivity to try to get give people the option of going together and remaining neighbors in some way,” Brewton said. “So everybody scattered, and we lost that feeling of connectedness.”
How discriminatory policies and practices led to disinvestment and decline
Before these areas were cleared for urban renewal and the highway, federal policies and local real estate practices set Black and low-income neighborhoods up for disinvestment and decline.
Race-restrictive covenants written into deeds of houses in the early 1900s forbade homeowners from selling or renting to various minority groups, keeping some neighborhoods all white. When the federal government started subsidizing home loans in the 1930s, it created maps for cities—six in Iowa—that said lenders shouldn’t approve mortgages in certain areas, especially those with more non-white, immigrant and low-income residents.
“Virtually all African-American neighborhoods, regardless of their socioeconomic status, were designated red,” said Julian Maxwell Hayter, a professor and historian at the University of Richmond who also grew up in Des Moines.
Red areas were considered “hazardous” for making home loans, and the description for why downtown Des Moines was marked red included the phrase, “there are many colored people” (these documents and maps were digitized by the Mapping Inequality project).
Hayter said redlining led to systematic disinvestment in these neighborhoods in the 1940s and 50s.
“It’s not just that people weren’t able to get mortgages. It’s that those who were upwardly mobile were disallowed from moving into neighborhoods like their white or immigrant counterparts. So they are in many ways compressed into smaller and smaller enclaves.”
This cemented the racial and economic segregation of cities across the Midwest, including Des Moines.
Hayter said at the same time, white families fled cities for the expanding suburbs, and wealth and jobs followed. Black families were mostly denied the opportunity to move to the suburbs, even when they could afford it.
“So by the 1960s, redlining, urban renewal, slum clearance and freeway construction begin to bring together what we now know as the inner city,” Hayter said. “It wasn’t created by choice. It was created by design.”
The federal government outlawed redlining in 1968 with the Fair Housing Act but didn’t fix the problems it created.
Hayter, born in 1975, said he grew up in a redlined neighborhood in Des Moines even though his parents had good jobs working for John Deere and Blue Cross Blue Shield.
“We were a solid middle class family,” Hayter said. “And I had to live in proximity to poverty, in large part because of these longstanding policies.”
Impact of discriminatory housing policies still clear today
The effects of these policies are clear around Good Park, just north of downtown Des Moines. That’s according to Kendyl Larson, the director of research and planning at the Polk County Housing Trust Fund, who said the area was redlined and affected by highway construction.
“We see that today in the impact of the property conditions and the property values,” Larson said. “They’re much lower in this general area because of that continued disinvestment over time in the specific neighborhoods that were once redlined.”
Nearly a century after redlining began, the areas in Des Moines with the lowest property values today mostly line up with the “hazardous” areas of the risk assessment maps of the 1930s. The exceptions are areas like the Sherman Hill and the East Village neighborhoods that are undergoing gentrification.
The persistent segregation and lower property values mean Black homeowners often can’t build as much wealth as white homeowners.
Larson said racial discrimination is still happening in housing, but more at the personal rather than the policy level. She said some realtors still steer people of different races to see houses in different parts of Des Moines, and there is racial discrimination in renting as well.
And in Polk County, Black mortgage applicants are denied loans at more than twice the rate of the county average.
“If you can’t get a mortgage for a home, then you’re not able to buy a home, which means you’re unable to build that wealth,” Larson said.
Racial homeownership gap and wealth gap persist
Nationally, the average white family has 10 times the wealth of the average Black family.
“One of the major ways in the US to generate what we would call generational wealth is through homeownership,” Hayter said. “Well, programs precluded racial minorities from homeownership, at least in any viable way, in the mid-20th century.”
Homeownership isn’t the only factor that contributes to this massive racial wealth gap. Other factors include disparities in education, employment and wages.
But Hayter said families that own a home are typically in a better position to get through hard times. And it helps them build wealth that they can help pass down to their kids, such as helping them pay for college or a down payment for a house of their own.
“I think even myself and my Black friends, we have not had generational wealth built for us where you can see with a lot of white families in Iowa,” said Zakariyah Hill, co-founder of The Supply Hive and a student at Iowa State University.
Hill said white families in Iowa are more likely to pass down farmland or houses.
“However my family, other families, start just working from a young age, and that’s all they know how to do,” Hill said. “People are really living paycheck to paycheck so they can survive to see another day.”
She said there are a lot of barriers to starting to build that generational wealth.
“It’s hard to start that cycle for Black families because it was never meant for us to see the cycle or to start at all,” Hill said.
She hopes to own a home in the future. And Hill said there should be more government support for people to get into housing and stay there, and to ensure they can pay their utilities.
Those who want to work to shrink the racial homeownership and wealth gaps say understanding this history is an important first step, but it will take targeted policies and investment to fix decades of damage.