Foundation for housing equity in Battle Creek to be created with community

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Battle Creek series.

BATTLE CREEK, MI — The decision to feed housing advocates some hard truths in Battle Creek during Home Ownership Month — instead of sugar-coated thoughts about the persistent and ongoing inequities in housing — was intentional, says Elizabeth Garcia, Co-Executive Director of Battle Creek Truth Racial Healing and Transformation (BCTRHT).
BCTRHT was one of several organizations in the community that came together to host a community dinner and discussion on June 5 at Washington Heights United Methodist with two well-respected authors — Dr. Sherryl Cashin and Leah Rothstein — who have written extensively on housing equity from a national perspective.
The hope was that community members left with a deeper understanding of how historical and current housing policies have shaped inequities in Battle Creek, says Frances Vicioso, BCTRHT Communications Coordinator.
“We also wanted them to feel empowered with knowledge and inspired to take action towards housing justice,” she says. “It was crucial for attendees to see that housing equity isn’t just an abstract concept but a tangible goal we can achieve through collective effort and informed advocacy.”
Cashin’s latest book is titled “White Space, Black Hood” and Rothstein’s book is titled “Just Action.” Copies of each book were made available at no cost to individuals who had attended discussions on housing prior to the gathering which coincides with Home Ownership Month observed in June.

Housing Equity Plan in store for Battle Creek
The goal of the gathering was “to cultivate a comprehensive understanding of housing inequity, explore actionable steps, and promote collaborative efforts among diverse communities,” Garcia says.
The gathering is part of work that will culminate in the building of a housing equity plan for the community, says Amanda Lankerd, Chief Executive Officer of the Battle Creek Area Association of Realtors (BCAAR).
“We want to make sure that everybody who wants to own a home has that opportunity,” she says.
While this may seem like an easy proposition, the reality is that People of Color (POC) have been and continue to be confronted by opportunity gaps that in many cases make home ownership unattainable.
In every state Black, Hispanic, and Native American households have lower homeownership rates than white households, according to a 2023 article published by the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University.
The Black homeownership rate saw a modest annual uptick to 44.1% in 2022 from 44% in 2021, but remains significantly behind the White homeownership rate of 72%, according to a report released in February by the National Association of Realtors.
“While these racial homeownership gaps vary somewhat state-to-state, their extent and persistence across the country demonstrate the need for coordinated policies and programs — at the state and national level — to address these gaps,” according to the Joint Center for Housing Studies story.
Garcia says BCTRHT plans to work closely with the City of Battle Creek as they develop their Five-Year Consolidated Plan, aiming to complete it within the next year.
“Our goal is to help ensure the plan is inclusive and reflects the community's needs. We'll also partner with Neighborhoods Inc. of Battle Creek and other local groups committed to housing justice, allowing us to address various aspects of housing equity together,” she says.
Rothstein, who co-wrote “Just Action” with her father, Richard Rothstein, told the audience of more than 150 at Washington Heights that “We need to reinvigorate the Civil Rights Movement. Federal policy change will be necessary. I also understand that we don’t have the political will on a national level to do that today, but we can build that political will locally. Change that will be achieved at the local level will be very impactful.”
Relying on her more than 20 years of experience as a consultant to affordable housing developers and local governments and as a community and union organizer, the San Francisco-based Rothstein has written a book that is essentially a blueprint for concerned citizens and community leaders.
Her last name was familiar to some Battle Creek residents who attended a talk given by her father in 2019 which focused on how explicit governmental policies instituted at every level have maintained segregation in America. He wrote a groundbreaking book titled “The Color of Law” that was published in 2017.

De facto segregation and the government's role
A former columnist for the New York Times and a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, as well as a Fellow at the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Rothstein has spent years documenting the evidence that the government not only ignored discriminatory practices in the residential sphere but promoted them, according to an Economic Policy Institute article.
“The impact has been devastating for generations of African-Americans who were denied the right to live where they wanted to live and raise and school their children where they could flourish most successfully,” according to the article.
This government intentionally created segregated neighborhoods, according to Leah Rothstein who says this is an example of de facto segregation.
According to the explanation for de facto segregation, unscrupulous real estate agents, unethical mortgage lenders, and exclusionary covenants working outside the law were responsible. Rothstein says this is an “utter myth.”
“Sure, private actors had a role to play but those actions were required and incentivized by government at all levels,” she says.
One of the most powerful examples she cites occurred following World War II with a baby boom and a housing shortage. The federal government wanted to meet the demand by building housing where it didn’t exist in suburban areas for white families and subsidized these efforts.
One of these subsidized housing developments was in a rural area of
Long Island which came to be known as Levitt Town, named after the developer, Abraham Levitt. Rothstein says he couldn’t afford to build the 17,000 homes he had planned.
He was able to break ground on this planned community in 1947 after receiving a federally-backed loan guarantee that he secured after promising that he would only sell homes to white people with restrictive covenants that these homes would only ever be owned and occupied by whites.
“This is what he did in order to get government backing,” Rothstein says. “Those white families got into homes when they were affordable and they got wealthy. They didn’t buy homes to get wealthy, but they used that wealth to help their kids pay for college, start their own businesses, and enjoy their retirement. They passed down that wealth and that’s how the intergenerational wealth transfer of whites has worked. African Americans were prohibited from building wealth the same way. That’s why we have consequences we’re living with today.”
These actions were unconstitutional and violated the 5th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution, she says.
“Once we understand how government took these actions, we have an obligation to remedy those laws broken by the government. We haven’t lived up to that obligation with residential segregation,” Rothstein says.
A residential caste system is alive and well
Cashin, a Law Professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., says Rothstein painted an accurate picture of how subsidized white spaces were created and how concentrated Black poverty was created.
While “Just Action” explains the government's role in housing inequity, Cashin looks through a different lens in her book – the existence of a residential caste system in the United States. 

In post-Civil Rights America, she says there was over-investment in majority white spaces and exclusion of POC at the same time there was disinvestment in communities populated by Black and Brown individuals who also were preyed upon by people who did not have their best interests at heart.
“Black and Brown communities are increasing. It’s increasingly hard for them to get into the white space and increasingly difficult for them to get out of the ‘hood,” Cashin says. “Everybody struggles to get to the highest opportunity space they can. People can’t afford to buy their way into affluent suburbs because they’re disadvantaged. The people who are being excluded are subsidizing those places with their tax dollars.”
This form of segregation which Cashin calls “extreme,” was a response to the Great Migration which saw more than six million African Americans moving north to escape Jim Crow laws which enforced racial segregation in southern states.
“The dominant response to African Americans, wherever they landed, was to contain them in intense quadrants of blackness through violence, extreme racial covenants, and exclusionary zoning. These neighborhoods were redlined and cut off from all of the private and public subsidies for white people,” Cashin says.
In addition to being excluded from these subsidies, African Americans living and working in these neighborhoods did not see the investment that white neighborhoods saw and could not get credit to maintain their homes or build or expand their businesses.
Urban renewal efforts were undertaken by the federal government beginning in the 1950s to revitalize gaining and decaying inner cities further eroded opportunities for African Americans.
Cashin says, the federal government spent billions to reconfigure downtowns, displacing Black people who moved into public housing.

The 'othering' of people in poor, Black neighborhoods
“What was constructed was an intense government-sponsored ghetto when you require 100 percent of the population to be Black,” she says. “A neighborhood where 40 or more of those living there are poor is considered a high-distressed neighborhood and often becomes known as a ghetto or a ‘hood.” When you have extreme segregation it alters the politics of race relations and it’s easier to 'other' people. There’s a lot of othering of people who live in high poverty in Black and Brown communities.”
Many people are not aware that current segregated housing patterns and average lower household wealth for African Americans are the direct result of federal housing policy that created redlining and prohibited black Americans from obtaining Federally backed housing loans until the passing of the Fair Housing Act in 1968, says Helen Guzzo, Community Development Manager for the City of Battle Creek
“The homeownership rate among black families is much lower than that among white families because Veterans Affairs and Federal Housing Administration (FHA) loans were unavailable to black families during the suburbanization of America in the forties, fifties and most of the sixties,” she says. “Most of Battle Creek’s housing stock was built during these times.”

Battle Creek is not as segregated as some cities
Cashin’s preparation for her visit to Battle Creek included a look into research about the racial makeup of the city’s neighborhoods.
“The nice thing I learned about your fair city is that you’re not hyper-segregated. Over time Battle Creek became less racially segregated between whites and Blacks. You’re not as extreme as cities like Baltimore, Detroit, and Chicago.”
Garcia says the decision to invite Cashin and Rothstein was based on their significant contributions to the housing justice conversation, continuing the advocacy efforts that have been ongoing in the Battle Creek community.
“Their work resonates with BCTRHT’s mission by providing deep insights into systemic housing challenges and offering practical solutions, reinforcing the community's ongoing commitment to housing equity,” she says. “Our collaborative efforts with Amanda at the Battle Creek Area Association of Realtors and other local advocates on our planning committee, who have been instrumental in ongoing housing equity advocacy.”
BCTRHT’s commitment is to continue collaborating with these individuals and organizations by being a thought partner, connector, and advocate for resources and policies that address housing inequities in Battle Creek, says Tha Par, Co-Executive Director of BCTRHT.
“BCTRHT is very aware that there are amazing local leaders and organizations who are passionate and committed to addressing housing justice,” Par says.

Making change at the local level involves active civic engagement and community organizing, Par and Vicioso say.
“Constituents have the power to influence local policies by staying informed, voting, and holding elected officials accountable. We encourage residents to participate in city meetings, voice their concerns, and join local advocacy groups,: says Par.

"Leah Rothstein’s emphasis on grassroots action aligns with our mission to build a strong, informed community that can collectively push for equitable housing policies and practices. Understanding the roots and consequences of housing inequities is the first step toward meaningful change.”

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