Ordering our Steps: Easter Sunday Segregation, Systems Change, and Equitable Housing

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By Patrick C. Graham, Ph.D.

This past Sunday, I woke up to the beauty of the Sun’s glare and the darkness Dr. Martin Luther King Jr revealed almost sixty years ago, “Sunday 11 A.M. is our most segregated hour.”  King alluded to the racial divide that not even Christian practitioners could conquer on their sabbath, with segregated church services across America serving as evidence of our moral dilemma. Many practitioners falsely use Christianity to justify racial and class hierarchies in our social and economic systems. While King’s point is grounded in truth, I would like to add something. The hours before and after 11 am service reinforce segregation and some of the iniquities we face, living under inequitable housing practices. This week is the holiest week of the Christian faith, the Easter Season. It should remind us we need a systems change in housing that orders our steps differently if America continues to be a global leader.

In the biblical text, a psalmist wrote, “Order my steps in thy word: and let not any iniquity have dominion over me” (Psalm 119:133). The words “any iniquity” do more than address individual moral behavior. Iniquity is also defined as gross injustice or grossly unfair behavior. These definitions have systemic implications beyond and including the individual. You do not have to be a practitioner of Christianity or any faith to understand the impact of gross injustice. Our economic and housing data across various social lines illustrate a need for new steps and systems change to combat the social injustice found in our housing sector and make our communities competitive.

Access to housing may determine an individual’s overall environment, access to education and economic opportunities, and ability to gain stability and wealth. As the “great wealth transfer” has the potential to redistribute approximately $3070 trillion from the “Baby Boomer Generation” to proceeding ones, it is the segregated housing and lending practices of the Federal Housing Authority that planted the seeds of the wealth transfer. From 1934 to 1968, 98 percent of all federally backed housing loans went to white households under segregated conditions known as “redlining.”  A Market Place study reveals that Black Americans are 80 percent more likely to be denied a home loan based on algorithms that enhance segregation and the wealth gap. However, the price of these practices harms us all, though, obviously, some more than others.

The segregation of neighborhoods has impacted America’s overall educational and economic development. In 1990, America ranked sixth in the world for education and health. By the mid-2000s, we ranked 27th. A process I call “Systemic Social Distancing,” which included the gutting of desegregation laws in the 1990s, unfair lending practices, and overall apathy toward the development of a growing and diverse population, all played a role. A 2016 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) study revealed that schools with at least 75 percent of African-American and Hispanic youth or high-poverty students doubled from 2001 to 2014. The resegregation of neighborhoods and schools plays a large part in America’s decreased competitiveness, as education and health are critical indicators for overall economic development. However, our story does not have to end this way.

We need a systemic approach and regional frameworks that promote equitable and inclusive housing patterns across communities. Systems change in housing requires that communities collectively adopt a vision, measurements, and strategies that lead to ownership and affordability for its residents. Just as important, it also requires mutual accountability. We can use data, the experiences of the private and public sector housing, and the valuable input of residents to develop individual plans for each neighborhood. This includes affordable and mixed-income development levels, the number of ownership and rental properties, and proximity to economic and educational development needed to make communities more resilient in a competitive world. It also includes advocacy for policies and practices that expand fair housing in our current financial environment. Regional frameworks provide the collective impact needed to address housing issues. 

As the CEO of WeBuild Concord, a lead convener for equitable and affordable housing development in one of America’s fastest-growing regions,  I have witnessed a renewed desire to address the housing crisis. In Concord and Cabarrus County of North Carolina, a cross-sector private, public, and social sector leaders are participating in developing a regional housing framework. Residents are a part of this development. WeBuild has already committed to a collaborative framework for up to 1,200 affordable housing units over the next ten years. In many ways, the diverse players involved have intentionally decided to be a “congregation for equitable housing.” 

The last time I sat in a church, I celebrated the sounds of young people singing the modern gospel classic Order My Steps in Your Word. The hope of those youthful faces inspired me. However, it will take more than hope to solve the problem of centuries of segregation, inequities, and racism in housing. It will require an inclusive faith that inspires collective thought, strategies, and action by people of all walks of life. As for those who share my faith, I pray this Easter Sunday that congregants across our country look deeply at the faces sitting in the pews and take steps to create new communities together. I hear my God has many mansions for all.  

About the Author

Dr. Patrick Graham is the CEO of WeBuild Concord, a lead convener for equitable and affordable housing for the City of Concord, NC. He has over 25-years as a social and public sector executive and policy professional, serving on regional and national boards. Dr. Graham is also an American historian with several academically published works on migration, community development, and civil rights.