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50 years after Fair Housing Act, segregation continues to vex Valley

By Justin Wier

Sunday, May 6, 2018



When Warren Harrell set out in 1964 to build a home for his family, open discrimination against people of color by banks and real- estate agents limited where he could purchase a lot.

“There were certain areas they would not allow African-Americans to buy homes or even to build in the Mahoning Valley,” Harrell said.

He had a friend who tried to purchase a lot on the West Side and then in Austintown, who was turned down. Another friend tried to get a house in Liberty — and he was turned down twice.

Harrell was a postal worker in his early 30s at the time; he considered Boardman, but he felt it was in his family’s best interest to find a place where he could qualify for a loan rather than challenge the status quo.

“My wife would be home raising the children by herself,” he said. “She didn’t feel safe during the ’60s moving into an area she may not be welcome. We took the safe way out.”

They settled on Youngstown’s East Side and built a four-bedroom home on Bott Street. They moved in January 1965 and still live there 53 years later.

“We did what we had to do,” Harrell said. “If I knew then what I know now, I may have taken the chance.”

Three years later in 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson would sign the Fair Housing Act, which sought to prevent the blatant discrimination experienced by Harrell and his friends. It prohibited housing discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion and national origin.

But 50 years later, Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley remain largely segregated.


The Rev. Kenneth Simon of New Bethel Baptist Church has a simple explanation for the persistence of housing segregation.

“You can change the law, but laws don’t change the heart,” the Rev. Mr. Simon said. “Until you change the hearts of people, they’re going to find ways to do the same things within the law.”

The landmark legislation is necessary because it reflects the nation’s values and standards, but Mr. Simon said you can’t force people to embrace those values.

He still hears of cases where a bank or real-estate agent puts up barriers for one family that miraculously disappear when a family of a different hue looks at the same house.

In Youngstown, you can see the results on Election Day.

The city’s 1st, 2nd and 6th wards have historically elected black candidates while the 4th, 5th and 7th wards continue to elect white candidates. The 3rd ward is more integrated but still predominately black.

A map created using census data shows that the majority of the city’s white residents live west of Mill Creek Park or in the area south of the Mahoning River and east of Interstate 680 that comprises the Powerstown and Brownlee Woods neighborhoods.

Mr. Simon said the continued segregation – which concentrates impoverished minorities in areas with fewer opportunities – keeps the black community in an impoverished state.

When asked whether he regretted not putting up a fight in 1964, Harrell said things have turned out well for his family – the only caveat being that his four-bedroom house would likely be worth significantly more than its appraised $36,490 had he built it in a suburb such as Boardman or Austintown.


A.J. Sumell, who teaches urban economics at Youngstown State University, said housing segregation has declined significantly since 1970, but it remains an issue in Northeastern cities.

“We’ve made progress, but we’re not in a situation where we can say segregation isn’t an issue anymore,” Sumell said.

Economists and other social scientists who study housing segregation use a measure called the index of dissimilarity. It measures the distribution of two groups across a demographic area where a measure of zero shows perfect integration and 100 represents perfect segregation.

The Youngstown-Warren metropolitan area had a dissimilarity index of 65.4 in 2010, where a typical metropolitan area had an index of 60.

The highest are Detroit and Milwaukee at 79.6.

Youngstown’s index decreased from 71 in 2000, which Sumell said is likely related to the population decline. One group may have left at a higher rate than another.

While racial segregation has declined, Sumell said income segregation has increased. He estimated a significant proportion of segregation by race is tied to income disparities.

Exclusionary zoning also contributes to segregation. Many municipalities have regulations that require a minimum lot size or forbid multi-unit residences in order to maintain high property values by squeezing out low-income families.

This has a negative effect, Sumell said, because everything from income to education is affected by where a person lives.

“A lot of it is just based on the communities children grow up in and the quality of public services and public schools in those communities,” he said.


Those who receive grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development are required to prepare documents that identify impediments to fair housing and suggest actions to overcome them.

Restrictive zoning codes, inadequate public services and discriminatory lending practices were three common impediments listed by the Government Accountability Office in a 2010 report.

The report identified limited regulatory requirements and oversights as explanations for a lack of progress in certain areas.

Under President Barack Obama, HUD implemented a rule to require local governments to take active steps toward fighting racial segregation.

The Trump administration delayed implementation of the rule until at least Oct. 31, 2020, and current HUD Secretary Ben Carson called it “social engineering” in a 2015 editorial.

In Mahoning County, those who feel they have suffered discrimination can call 330-740-8799, Ext. 2. Fair housing coordinator Anna DeAscentis said the county receives about six calls a year, but many involve landlord disputes that don’t directly concern civil-rights violations.

All complaints are referred to the Ohio Civil Rights Commission district office in Akron.

DeAscentis also provides training and informational sessions to those who receive HUD grants from the county.


At one time, not even the city’s East Side welcomed black families.

Artis Gillam Sr. recalled huddling in his father’s home with neighbors as well as members of the NAACP and the Urban League after someone through a brick through their front window with a note that read, “beware KKK.”

His father built the home in 1959, Gillam said. Vindicator files show the event occurred in early 1960.

A month later, he received a bullet in the mail. The FBI got involved and apprehended the culprits.

Like Harrell, Gillam said his father didn’t buck the trend.

“He didn’t try to pioneer into Boardman or Canfield,” Gillam said.

When Gillam, a former Youngstown City Council member, and his wife built their own East Side home on Kimmel Street in 1976, they did not encounter any problems.

He said things improved after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, but he doesn’t expect segregation to disappear.

“We will never ever have that happy harmony people want,” Gillam said. “The majority of black people and the majority of white people would rather be separate.”

He said that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Mr. Simon offered a more optimistic prognostication for those who seek racial harmony. He sees hope in the progress made by younger generations.

He also referenced what’s been called “the browning of America.” The Census Bureau predicts that by 2044, no single racial group will constitute a majority of the country.

“It’s got to get better,” Mr. Simon said. “We’re going to be forced to learn how to live together.”