Redlining in Kansas City: The history, the long-lasting effects and the new push to reverse it

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – There’s a new generation of Kansas Citians working to reverse the negative effects of redlining on the city’s eastside.

James Watts has lived in the home his parents bought on 21st Street for most of his life.

“It was a limited choice,” the 71-year-old said.

Watts, who works at the Black Archives of Mid-America, said his parents didn’t have many options because of redlining, a discriminatory practice in which areas with high black populations were outlined in red ink on maps as a warning to mortgage lenders.

“People were reduced to a certain area,” he said.

Although African Americans were discriminated against, residential segregation didn’t really exist in Kansas City before the 1900s, according to a Fair Housing Assessment conducted by the Mid-America Regional Council. It wasn’t until after World War I that redlining started to divide the city, notably along Troost Avenue and largely due to efforts by Country Club Plaza developer J.C. Nichols.

“My father faced some obstacles on how to get a mortgage and how to pay for that house cause that’s the way it was,” Watts recalled.

Banks wouldn’t lend money or homes to black people, resulting in inequities in social and economic opportunities and resources. 

“It impacted us socially, economically and spiritually where you give people an imagination of this is the only place you can go,” Watts said.

The effects of the now illegal practice are still seen today. The eastside is plagued with poverty and vacant and blight homes.

But there are some people trying to change that.

“We’re trying to take a community that had been formally maligned and formally taken advantage of and turn it into something positive,” said Ajia Morris, co-founder of The Greenline Initiative.

Morris started The Greenline Initiative alongside her husband, Christopher. The mission of the organization is to increase Black generational wealth through property ownership and investment.

“The racial wealth gap is widening, and one of the primary ways people can accumulate generational wealth is through homeownership,” Ajia said. “That’s one step we can take to close the divide.”

They buy blighted homes in the urban core, renovate them and sell them to disadvantaged renters. 

“The impact is not just for the family that purchased the home, but when you fix up a vacant or blighted home, the neighborhood is immediately impacted,” Christopher said. “It’s more beautiful, safer.”

The Morris’ want to change the way people view the eastside in particular.

“That’s our greatest aspiration, positively impacting the eastside,” Ajia added.

It’s stability and progress Watts said is needed to start to right the wrongs of the past.                

“Right now, the opportunity is open,” he said.

To date, the Morris’ have renovated and sold one home. They recently purchased two more homes on the eastside and are preparing to renovate them.

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