Editor: David Reiss
Brooklyn Law School

June 10, 2013

FHA Whitewash

By David Reiss

While preparing for my talk tomorrow on The FHA and Housing Affordability, I was reviewing some of the recent literature on the FHA. I came across a recent HUD working paper with some interesting data about recent FHA crises but also with a disturbing spin on the FHA’s history. The FHA Single-Family Insurance Program: Performing a Needed Role in the Housing Finance Market states that in its early years “race was not explicitly regarded as a factor in FHA’s mortgage insurance operations.” (9) This is flat out wrong and has been known to be flat out wrong at least since Kenneth Jackson published Crabgrass Frontier in 1987. Jackson clearly demonstrated that race was “explicitly regarded as a factor in FHA’s mortgage insurance operations.”

Jackson writes that the FHA’s Underwriting Manual from those early years stated that “[i]f a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties shall be continued to be occupied by the same social and racial classes” and recommended that owners employ restrictive covenants to exclude African Americans (and some other groups). (208) The working paper has other extraordinary statements that minimize the FHA’s central role in promoting segregation during the mid-20th Century. For instance, it states that the FHA’s “early policy may have inadvertently promoted redlining practices.” (18) There was nothing “inadvertent” about it.

I typically find that federal government reports make great efforts to be factually accurate, so this paper is a great exception.  One might think that the authors deserve some leeway in their interpretation, but Jackson’s history has only been confirmed by later research, such as last year’s Do Presidents Control Bureaucracy? The Federal Housing Administration During the Truman-Eisenhower Era which was published in Political Science Quarterly. It makes much the same point as Crabgrass Frontier. I would be curious to hear the authors’ response to my assessment, but I really can’t see how they can deny it.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” (Santayana)

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