“Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons, is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons, we who believe in freedom cannot rest … until it comes.”

— Ella Baker

Ella Baker, a significant activist in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, has been my guide for the nearly 40 years since I first heard about her. Whenever I get weary of struggling for an equitable, just and peaceful community, I remember that we who believe in freedom cannot rest yet.

Thousands of people have been in the streets protesting systemic racism that kills black and brown people — quickly under a knee, slowly in frustration and fear, deprived of the basic necessities of life. For people of color and white allies, the blatant injustice of George Floyd’s death is a continuation of the long burden of racism.

Hundreds of people have taken part in Zoom calls to talk about equity, peace and justice with new recognition and passion. Can these two forms of energy create lasting change for racial justice?

Overt police violence against black men and women triggered loud outrage, on top of quiet sobs for deaths from COVID-19 and distress from losing jobs and businesses. Under that is the looming peril of eviction inherent in the “persistent shortage of decent affordable housing.” Peeling back the layers of the onion while weeping for the killing of black sons and daughters, we find the most basic of disparities: no safe place to live.

Housing inequalities are glaring. Some of us have comfortable housing, some have inadequate housing and some have no housing at all. Because of that, some of us are oblivious to the housing problems of others; some are sick from dangerous housing or stressed about spending all of their income on rent or a mortgage rather than food; some are outside, too cold or too hot and too vulnerable to assault or theft.

A legacy of racist housing policies contributes to the injustices of today: Slavery consigned enslaved people to the housing decisions of their owners. Later, federal policy required segregation and limited investment for home purchase in areas occupied by African Americans, marked on maps (“redlining”). This depressed property values and hampered maintenance; then urban renewal bulldozed “blight,” and predatory lending stripped equity. Now, investors buy up “bargain” properties and rent “as is” or raise rents beyond what people can pay.

Segregation is no longer mandated but when developers try to create affordable housing to ease the “persistent shortage of decent affordable housing,” the response is often “Not in my backyard.” That limits construction and constricts the supply of housing which, in turn, increases the cost and contributes to housing insecurity or homelessness.

Some rental owners and real estate agents deny housing based on race and national origin, or conversely, rent or sell housing in substandard condition and disrespect tenants or homebuyers because they assume the person has no other options.

If our vision is opportunities for each to choose where one wants to live and to be treated fairly and respectfully, how do we make the systemic changes necessary for equitable opportunity?

  • Contribute to the Greensboro Housing Coalition’s eviction resolution fund. Black mothers and children are evicted because of low wages and high rents.
  • Welcome new essential housing in our neighborhoods for essential workers. Say, “Yes in my backyard.”
  • Reexamine barriers to housing, such as previous eviction or criminal charges.
  • Advocate for zoning policies to facilitate development throughout the city to increase the supply. Study Greensboro’s comprehensive plan through an equity lens.
  • Advocate for public funding, leveraged by private and philanthropic investment, in housing affordable to people with limited incomes. For essential workers making $15,000 a year, that would be $375 monthly rent. The City Council will discuss consultants’ recommendations in a strategic housing plan.

We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.

Beth McKee-Huger is an Episcopal deacon, vegetable farmer, housing advocate and News & Record community columnist.

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