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Public Housing as Race-Based Public Policy; De Facto Segregation or Just the Facts?

By Terri L. Crawford, JD

“There are still forces in America that want to divide us along racial lines, religious lines, sex, class. But we’ve come too far; we’ve made too much progress to stop or to pull back. We must go forward. And I believe we will get there.” — Congressman John Lewis

Our selective national amnesia ignores the fact that racial segregation policy in housing was not merely a Southern concern, but widespread across the country. Herbert Hoover’s 1930 “President’s Conference on Home Building and Home Ownership” sought to focus attention upon the problems of home ownership and suggest means to combat them. Sounds like a great idea to achieve the “American Dream” right? Well, for America’s White citizens, it was. In his opening address, Hoover stated, “Single-family homes were expressions of racial longing” and “Our people should live in their own homes, a sentiment deep in the heart of our race.”

Five years later, the Omaha Housing Authority (OHA) was established, just as the Nebraska Legislature passed the Metropolitan Cities Housing Authorities Law. This was in response to national efforts to revitalize economically depressed communities and finance low-income housing. Construction of Logan Fontenelle was one of OHA’s earliest projects.

Phase One of Omaha’s first public housing project opened in 1938 on 24th and Paul Streets. Phase Two followed in 1941 on 20th and Clark. Logan Fontenelle’s 550 units served more than 2,100 low-income residents. The intended beneficiaries were new eastern European immigrants, primarily Czechs, Slovaks, German Jews and others. They had fled oppressive Nazi regimes and desperately needed places to live. The government needed workers, forming a “perfect union” in the eyes of both.

Legal segregation initially prevented Black residents from living in public housing. However, as European immigration decreased and income of White residents increased, the demographics of Logan Fontenelle shifted. As more Black families arrived in Omaha with the Great Migration, OHA became less interested in maintaining its grounds and facilities. Also, the segregation that originally banned Black residents was no longer legally enforceable. Within the decade, Logan Fontenelle became synonymous with neglect, racial segregation, isolation, and overpolicing. As the need for public housing increased, more families packed into those few housing units, escalating already tense conditions.

Logan Fontenelle faced many pitfalls on the journey to its demise, including the 1969 police shooting death of Vivian Strong, a 14-year old girl. Four major riots resulted when the White police officer who fatally shot her was found not guilty of murder. The projects were plagued by chronic, systemic racism, a crack cocaine epidemic and lawsuits spotlighting illegal segregation and race-based public policy.

In 1990, HUD, the City of Omaha and OHA where slapped with a Class Action lawsuit. It alleged a 50-year history of racial discrimination in the administration of its public housing developments, Section 8 and Scattered Site housing programs. In 1994, Hawkins v. Cisneros, a case also dealing with race, economic inequity and public housing, served as the death knell for Logan Fontenelle. Plaintiffs also alleged violations resulting in racially segregated housing. The plaintiffs prevailed, and the defendants entered a consent decree in 1994. Terms and conditions required demolition and replacement of Logan Fontenelle.

OHA announced a new housing project in 1951. Originally known as the “North Side Projects,” then the “Parker Street Projects,” they ultimately became known as Pleasant View Projects. Located on the east and west corners of North 30th Street and extending from Burdette to Parker streets, the complex was constructed in the historic Highlander neighborhood adjacent to Prospect Hill. Pleasant View occupied 14 acres of land and accommodated 184 units and a 51-unit tower. Due to many of the same neglectful conditions that existed in Logan Fontenelle, Pleasant View also fell prey to violence, crime and systemic racism.

Federal funding allowed Omaha to expand its public housing initiative and in June 1952, the Spencer Street Housing Projects opened on 30th and Spencer Streets. Also positioned in the Highlander neighborhood, Spencer originally offered 165 units, expanding over time to 25 buildings.

Then in 1977, the City of Omaha announced the official plan to direct the North Freeway right through the Spencer Projects. The first choice had been to direct the freeway through the affluent Dundee-Happy Hollow neighborhood, but the plan was struck down after vehement protest. Despite opposition from the North Omaha community, the city pushed the plan through. Four years later, in 1981, 57 units were demolished to make room for the North Freeway. It destroyed historic neighborhoods, businesses and decades of home ownership for longtime residents. Housing statistics report 11 buildings at Spencer Homes were demolished, displacing 56 families.

Hilltop Projects was also constructed in 1952, at the corner of 30th and Lake Streets. It was on the former site of Ittner Brothers brickyard, a company instrumental in the early construction of Omaha. Hilltop housed 200 families, with 225 units in 46 two-story buildings. It was part of a distinct cluster of housing projects in North Omaha true to its redlining roots. Hilltop was located immediately adjacent to Pleasant View and displayed many of the patterns and practices of discrimination identified in the Cisneros case. Hilltop became a civil rights hub, hosting the likes of rights champions Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer. Dr. King toured the site when in Omaha speaking at the National Baptist Convention in 1958 at Salem Baptist Church, and on his return visit in 1960.

Resistance to the status quo, racist public policy gained momentum in the ’60s.Those efforts were spearheaded by North Omaha State Senator Edward Danner who introduced the Nebraska Equal Housing Bill  in 1963.

It enacted a state policy of equal housing, citing the fact that “fewer than 50 of the 10,000 new homes in Omaha were available to Blacks.” As the lone Black legislator, Senator Danner received little support from his colleagues who saw no utility in the introduction of the bill, and it was not passed.

Negotiations with OHA, the city and Salem Baptist Church allowed for a new vision on the hill. In 1999 a new church was constructed just west of 30th and Lake Streets, occupying the site of the former Hilltop Housing Project. Salem was also responsible for the development of Walgreens at the intersection.

There continue to be gallant efforts to “revitalize” North Omaha, or “North Downtown.” Many are excited about the possibilities of what’s to come. Word to the wise, gentrification should not be confused with urbanization.

In 2015, the Fair Housing Equity Assessment (FHEA) compared demographic information for zip codes in North and Northeast Omaha, coming to some not-so-surprising conclusions. North Omaha was identified as the largest cluster for race and poverty, mirroring the redlined area on the 1936 HOLC Security Map. That’s right, an overlay of the 1936 map onto a 2015 map shows little to no change.

Here’s the takeaway: undoing the detrimental effects of de jure segregation will be difficult, not impossible. It means investing the same energy, resources, public policy and dollars into building neighborhoods as we did in demolishing them. If the federal government could spend billions that it spent creating White suburbs, the equivalent could also be spent on eliminating systemic obstacles to home ownership for Black citizens. Investment in transportation systems that open access to the “abundant” job opportunities would cause the inequality to die from lack of oxygen. Progress has been made, and there remains much work to be done.

Dr. Terri Crawford

Terri L. Crawford, J.D; University of Nebraska Omaha, Department of Black Studies – Adjunct Professor; Political Awareness and Involvement Chair, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. (OAC); Policy Director League of Women Voters of Greater Omaha.