Color coding doesn't account for complexity

Some bad practices never leave us. One of them is reducing complex issues to simple ratings and using them to make big decisions that create inequality. I am talking about redlining. It is illegal, but the Heights Community Congress (HCC) tells us it’s back.

Our ignominious history is important. A devastating home foreclosure crisis during the Great Depression prompted the first federal housing program, an agency to refinance mortgages so that desperate homeowners could keep their property. In 1933, Congress established the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) and made protecting homeownership a new national priority.

Sadly, while the agency saved more than a million homes from foreclosure and established new lending practices that made homeownership affordable for generations to come, it also codified racial discrimination in lending. HOLC created a national system for evaluating mortgage risk that made the race of residents in a neighborhood a defining factor in where to lend money.

This practice gave all-white neighborhoods access to mortgages, and defined African Americans, and any neighborhood that had black residents, as too risky to be creditworthy.

In 1939, HOLC teams surveyed 239 cities and created color-coded “residential security maps.”  Green and blue neighborhoods were places to encourage lending and investment. Yellow areas, the standard color of caution, were less safe. Red, the symbol of danger and hazard, ruled out investment. The maps made it easy for the federal government, and subsequently bankers and realtors, to make a quick assessment of where to invest. Urban historian Antero Pietila called it “mapping bigotry.”

Assessing risk is a fundamental step in making loan decisions. It is a complex judgment. A wide range of variables affect a good investment: the characteristics of the property, the creditworthiness of the individual seeking the loan, and the neighborhood’s assets. Despite the complexity of this decision, HOLC relied heavily on the racial makeup of neighborhoods.

As far back as 1909, the white real estate industry had decided that the presence of African Americans was a threat to property values. The HOLC system adopted this as truth. It used a pernicious “desirability index” created by the racist eugenics movement to rate an ethnic group’s creditworthiness. The presence of African Americans automatically earned a neighborhood a red rating.

So began the practice of redlining: withholding investment in specific locations based on negative assumptions about the residents.

Until passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, public policy discriminated against African Americans, promoted segregation, and encouraged unequal access to homeownership and the wealth and opportunity that it could bring. Today’s enormous black-white wealth gap is the legacy of a policy that reduced a complex decision-making process to looking at the color of a map.

We are facing a new kind of redlining: unfairly writing off neighborhoods because of a school-quality rating. Color-coded evaluations of risk are back.

HCC, our community’s fair housing watchdog for more than 40 years, has uncovered “educational redlining” practiced by Zillow, the online real estate promotion website that uses an undefined set of criteria to rank school quality. With a simple click, buyers can find a list of nearby public schools, a number rating from 1 to 10 for each school, and a color code of red for the lowest, yellow for the middle and green for the best. Sound familiar?

GreatSchools, an arm of a venture capital firm committed to charter schools, provides the ratings. They draw on report card data to create the ratings. Private schools are exempt from testing so they are listed but not rated.

HCC asserts that this is a new form of redlining that encourages disinvestment in certain areas, based on the color of their school-quality ranking.

I agree.

For as long as I’ve been involved in public education, people have wanted to define and capture education quality. People have very different ideas about what matters: demographics, teachers, course offerings, funding, class size, extracurricular activities, community support, grades, college access, thinking, mastery, et cetera. What criteria matter and how should you weigh them? It’s complicated!

Schools are an important consideration in deciding where to live, but determination of quality cannot be reduced to a number or a color. Unfortunately, high-stakes testing has created a quick and dirty, simplistic tool for judging quality. It is neither accurate nor appropriate, but it is harmful, and it is legal—just like discrimination used to be legal!

Ohio’s school report cards make educational redlining possible. This destabilizes school districts that educate vulnerable students. Lawmakers need to consider that discrimination is illegal under Ohio law and stop facilitating educational redlining.

Susie Kaeser

Susie Kaeser is a longtime resident of Cleveland Heights and former director of Reaching Heights. She serves on the national board of Parents for Public Schools.

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Volume 8, Issue 12, Posted 9:47 AM, 12.01.2015