What Is Redlining?

Redlining Explained in Less Than 5 Minutes

Definition

Redlining refers to the unethical and discriminatory practice banks and lenders use to deny access to credit and home loans to certain individuals based on the racial and ethnic demographics of the applicant or the community in which the applicant lives. 

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Definition and Example of Redlining

Redlining is a form of illegal lending discrimination used primarily against Black homebuyers in which people that live in certain communities are not allowed the same access to credit as people in other communities based on race, color, or other discriminatory factors. In a practical sense, redlining was the act of drawing red lines around or shading red certain neighborhoods on a map that banks and lenders deemed “hazardous” to lend to. The physical practice was used in more than 200 cities across the country but redlining’s effects are still prevalent today.

Note

Historically, mortgage lenders have engaged in redlining as a way of denying creditworthy applicants access to obtain home loans in specific communities. The term has now become synonymous with the systemic tactics used by mortgage lenders to exclude people of color, typically Black Americans, even though the applicant may otherwise be eligible for loans.

One example of redlining is a residential map of Chicago in which the western section of the city is shaded red. So, if a Black family from that area applied for a home loan, two things could happen. First, they would be much more likely to be denied the loan. Or they may be required to pay a higher interest rate than a White family from a non-redlined area.

How Redlining Works 

Access to mortgages is one of the two most common ways of building generational wealth in the U.S. However, for many decades, redlining was used in conjunction with racially restrictive covenants as a way of keeping non-White citizens out of certain neighborhoods and perpetuating segregation.

Neighborhoods were systematically graded using certain criteria such as housing price and conditions, transportation access, and closeness to amenities like parks. However, non-housing-related characteristics such as employment status, economic class, immigration status, and the ethnic and racial makeup of the community were influential factors as well.

The color-coding system was used to divide neighborhoods into categories. Areas shaded in green were the most desirable. Any areas outlined or color coded with red were considered a high-risk category, and mortgages rarely got approved in those areas. It soon became clear that the neighborhoods deemed as the riskiest consisted of primarily Black and Hispanic residents.

Note

The term “redlining” was coined in the 1960s by sociologist John McKnight to describe the discriminatory practices banks used to prevent investing in areas primarily populated by Black residents.

How Redlining Began

After the Great Depression, many homeowners with mortgages could not repay their loans and lost their homes. As a result, mortgage lenders experienced high losses on loans and unstable property values. So, to limit foreclosures and stabilize the housing market, the federal government established several agencies as part of a “New Deal” initiative. These agencies included the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) in 1933 and the Federal Housing Authority via the National Housing Act of 1934, which provided mortgage insurance and home improvement loans.

The Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC)

The now-defunct HOLC created a set of guidelines for appraising residential property values. The guidelines were based on housing market conditions, economic characteristics, and neighborhood demographics. Mortgage lenders who wanted to secure financial backing from the government were required to follow the set guidelines. Banks and lenders used those guidelines to draw residential security maps for 239 cities across the U.S. These maps pointed out the riskiness of providing loans across neighborhoods.

HOLC Redlining Maps

HOLC agents would consult with city officials, loan officers, appraisers, and real estate agents to design maps that identified the lending risk for neighborhoods across the U.S. The communities were then color coded on paper maps known as “residential security maps.” For instance, neighborhoods coded with green were considered the best areas and represented the least amount of risk for lenders. Neighborhoods coded red were predominately Black and classified as the highest risk. Here’s an example of how properties were codified:

  • Green/Grade A (Best): The appraisal value of these properties was anticipated to increase or remain high. This rating also represented the lowest risk of default for lenders.
  • Blue/Grade B (Still Desirable): These properties were anticipated to maintain their appraised value. This rating represented an acceptable default risk for lenders.
  • Yellow/Grade C (Declining): The appraisal value on these properties was expected to decrease. This rating represented a significant default risk for lenders.
  • Red/Grade D (Hazardous): These properties were older and sometimes near unattractive or unhealthy industrial areas and therefore considered to have minimal value. This rating represented a dangerous default risk for lenders.

How Redlining Impacted Black Homebuyers

Black homebuyers were disproportionately affected by redlining for several reasons. First, because the system’s racist framework favored White homebuyers, it was incredibly difficult for a Black homebuyer to get approval for funding in neighborhoods with high appraisal values that were anticipated to rise over time. 

Because lenders shut them out of these neighborhoods, Black homebuyers had to turn to unattractive neighborhoods that, in some cases, were situated near industrial sites. Prices were more affordable, but Black homebuyers ended up paying more in interest because the neighborhoods were deemed “risky” based on the age and condition of the homes and their proximity to industrial areas.

Because of those higher rates, Black homeowners were left with very little financial wiggle room to take care of repairs and improve their homes. As a result, Black homeowners were caught in a vicious cycle purposely perpetuated by federal housing agencies and lenders in which their neighborhoods were suffering but there was very little they could do to improve or escape their situation, while White homebuyers, which the system unjustly favored, enjoyed rising property values and low interest rates.

Redlining and Contract Buying

The practice of contract buying worked hand in hand with redlining to obliterate the generational wealth of Black homeowners and often left them without any equity. In contract buying, the buyer would make a down payment and monthly installment payments, which were often unfairly inflated by unscrupulous sellers who wanted to take advantage of Black Americans. The seller would keep the deed to the home and require the homebuyer to meet a series of often unfair and discriminatory conditions before the deed was passed over.

Shut out of nicer neighborhoods because of redlining, and fighting against a lending system that often made mortgages either too expensive or impossible to get, Black homebuyers, particularly those in Chicago, turned to contract buying as a last resort. 

If the homebuyer violated any conditions of the contract—say, being late on a mortgage payment just one time—the house’s owner could kick them out. The homebuyer would lose their down payment and all of their installment payments. Furthermore, because they didn’t own the deed to the home, the homebuyer wasn’t entitled to any equity the house achieved while they lived in it. 

The Greenwood Massacre

Even when Black homebuyers were able to build, against purposely unfavorable odds, a thriving community of homeownership, they faced the constant threat of harassment and violence. Greenwood, a neighborhood and business district in Tulsa often referred to as “Black Wall Street,” met its demise in 1921 when White mobs set fire to Greenwood and the national guard imprisoned more than 6,000 of its residents. Thirty-five city blocks burned to the ground, and it’s believed that as many as 300 people died as a result of the massacre. Simply put, the act of homeownership—just owning a home and building wealth—could put the lives of Black homeowners at risk.

Note

The Fair Housing Act (FHAct), which is title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, was enacted to prevent housing discrimination like redlining. However, it’s believed that more than 150 residential security maps still exist today.

The Lingering Effects of Redlining

The scars of redlining are still visible across the U.S. even to this day. Redlining has been a huge contributing factor to the wealth gap between Black and White Americans in several different ways: 

  • Lower property values and decreased homeownership in urban areas predominantly populated by Black people can often be traced back to redlining. 
  • The inability to secure mortgages in some communities of color has led to an increase in abandoned buildings, which have become hot spots for criminal activity.
  • Black homebuyers who could afford to invest in housing did not receive the same return on investment as White Americans. 
  • Black residents are more likely to rent instead of own homes.
  • Those who could purchase homes were often not approved for home loans in suburban areas with high property values.

As a result of these redlining tactics, White Americans were more likely to leave an inheritance for their children with home values that increased about ten times above the purchase price. However, African American children were less likely to see significant inheritance from their property values.

Furthermore, a study from the Brookings Institute found that homes in majority-Black neighborhoods are consistently valued 23% lower than homes with similar amenities in neighborhoods with few or no residents who are Black—that disparity in home value represents $156 billion in losses for Black homeowners.

Note

Redlining also contributes to the racial wealth gap in the form of lowball appraisal offers and higher interest rates for borrowers.

Protections Against Redlining

It is illegal for lenders and creditors to discriminate against anyone based on race, color, religion, national origin, sex, disability, or familial status. If you believe a lender has discriminated against you or anyone else for any reason, you have options. Submit a complaint online with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau by calling (855) 411-2372 and file a Fair Housing complaint at HUD.gov

Key Takeaways

  • Redlining is the practice of denying credit to individuals based on race, ethnicity, or other discriminatory factors.
  • Banks and lenders used color-coded residential maps to determine which neighborhoods were considered to be at the highest risk to default on loans.
  • Communities of color, typically Black and Hispanic, are commonly the targets of redlining.
  • The Fair Housing Act (FHAct) of 1968 makes it illegal for lenders to deny borrowers based on race, color, or other discriminatory factors.
  • The effects of redlining can still be felt by Black communities and other communities of color across the U.S.

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Sources
The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago. “The Effects of the 1930s HOLC "Redlining" Maps (REVISED August 2020),” Click “Download Entire Publication.” Page 2.

  2. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System. "Federal Fair Lending Regulations and Statutes: Fair Housing Act," Page 1.

  3. University of Richmond. "Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America."

  4. National Community Reinvestment Coalition. “HOLC “Redlining” Maps: The Persistent Structure of Segregation and Economic Inequality.”

  5. Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis Economic Research. “Neighborhood Redlining, Racial Segregation, and Homeownership.”

  6. Encyclopedia of Human Services and Diversity. “Redlining,” Pages 1-2.

  7. Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum. “75th Anniversary of the Wagner-Steagall Housing Act of 1937.”

  8. The Samuel Dubois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University. “The Plunder of Black Wealth in Chicago: New Findings on the Lasting Toll of Predatory Housing Contracts,” Page iii.

  9. The Samuel Dubois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University. “The Plunder of Black Wealth in Chicago: New Findings on the Lasting Toll of Predatory Housing Contracts,” Page 2.

  10. Tulsa Historical Society & Museum. “1921 Race Massacre.” 

  11. Brookings. “The Devaluation of Assets in Black Neighborhoods: The Case of Residential Property.”

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