Louisville, Ky.'s Interactive Map Spreads Understanding, Awareness of Redlining

Discriminatory lending practices of the 1930s have had longstanding impacts to this day, and an interactive map illustrates the effects that redlining has on housing development, disinvestment and lending patterns.

by Eric Bosco, Ash Center’s Civic Analytics Network / June 16, 2017
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This story was originally published by Data-Smart City Solutions.

Redlining, the denial of services or the refusal to grant loans or insurance to certain neighborhoods based on racial and socioeconomic discrimination, can be a hard issue to understand, let alone talk about.

But Louisville Metro Government is making strides to spread understanding and awareness of how the discriminatory lending practices of the 1930s have had longstanding impacts to this day through the use of an interactive map that illustrates the effects of redlining on housing development, disinvestment, and lending patterns. The Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC) was created by the federal government during the Great Depression to bolster the housing market, but the HOLC created lopsided residential securities maps that assigned grades indicating neighborhood desirability for investment – communities of color were typically given low grades, and although the HOLC was discontinued in 1951, the practice left minority neighborhoods significantly disadvantaged in terms of wealth building and property values.

The map, “Redlining Louisville: The History of Race, Class, and Real Estate,” has been selected as the first winner of Harvard’s new Map of the Month contest, which recognizes best-in-class data visualizations created by all levels of government and nonprofits. “Redlining Louisville” was selected for its outstanding use of data combined from multiple sources, including historical data, its creativity and effective communication to the public, and the policy implications it is likely to have moving forward.

In coordination with the release of the map this February, Louisville’s Office of Redevelopment Strategies announced a year-long series of public events to promote community dialogue on the issue of redlining. The intended outcome of the public events is to gather ideas and form recommendations based on community input about how to best support homeownership and development opportunities in city areas currently experiencing disinvestment.

The city is also training “volunteer ambassadors” that will be educated on map information and equipped to lead discussions throughout the community, presenting information and recording responses from residents.

“This is an important topic that has not been discussed openly very much in our community,” said Jeana Dunlap, Louisville’s Director of Redevelopment Strategies. “It dates back 80 years and we’ve seen signs that there are some sorts of digital redlining tendencies, with access to broadband internet, the provision of health and medical services, and with grocery stores closing, the creation of food deserts with large portions of the community that don’t have access to basic grocery services.”

Dunlap described the community events headlined by the Redlining Louisville map as having “exceptional turnout and participation” and that people are “blown away” by the ability to see the actual historical documentation of redlining practices overlaid with current data and neighborhood information.

“The map is a great educational tool that makes this data easily accessible to people,” Dunlap said. “It creates a learning environment where people of different generations can actually get into it and experience it.”

The map combines a variety of datasets — vacant properties, building permits, and property values — and includes the original 1937 HOLC Louisville residential security assessment map indicating neighborhood desirability for investment that illustrates the historic redlining. Users can compare HOLC data with current census tract data by property values, race, vacant properties, and home ownership locations.

In many cases, the neighborhood values assigned during the era of the Great Depression have clear impacts on current neighborhoods. In the “compare property values” tab of the map pictured below, many of the neighborhood districts that received the lowest grade, D or Fourth Grade by the HOLC assessments, currently hold the lowest property values based on average residential property values per census tract. Neighborhood “D13,” a large swath along the Ohio River, “D9” and “D11,” among others, fall in the $0-56,000 residential property value census tract and also received the lowest grades from the HOLC assessments.

Given the map’s importance to community engagement, it is quite fitting that the map was actually created through independent research by an engaged community member. Joshua Poe, a local urban planner who now works as Project Manager for YouthBuild Louisville, a job training program that teaches construction skills to low-income youth, began looking into redlining in Louisville as an independent research project about five years ago.

Poe was able to locate the HOLC maps in the cartographic archives in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., digitized them and began to search for ways to present the information visually to a wide audience.

“I never wanted to present these maps as a sort of archive or artifact that simply documents a piece of history,’” Poe said. “My goal was always to demonstrate the correlation between the historical data and some measurable components from today."

Poe said that he had collected all of the historical maps and data around 2014, when the Esri Story Map format was just becoming popular; “I was planning on writing a tremendous amount of code for the project, but around that time, Esri released the story map template and it was a perfect fit for what I wanted these maps to look like, particularly the swipe map." 

As he began to compile the various components of the map and combine the historical map with census tract data, Poe realized the project was not something he would be able to continue on his own — he was working full time as an urban planner — and sought assistance from local universities and community organizations.

But the most willing partner Poe came across was Dunlap, while she was in her former role as Director of Public Property and Administration. Dunlap funded Poe for his work and the map was completed in its story map format in 2015. With the launch of the redlining community engagement initiative, the city published the map on its open data portal and began the community events.

“I thought: ‘this plays right into the work of redevelopment strategies where we're trying to ensure and deliver visible, tangible results at the neighborhood level,’” Dunlap said. “I want to change buildings but I also want to change minds.”

The map is being introduced in the community through engagement meetings put on by the city and community organizations alike – Poe is presenting the map at an event organized by Black Lives Matter Louisville and other community groups on June 16. Dunlap has reason to hope that some minds will in fact be changed, with the magnified understanding of historic redlining practices and their impacts today — something that she describes as the necessary first step.

“If we don't understand the nature of our problem today, I'm not optimistic that we're going to come up with a policy solution for it,” Dunlap said. “There’s a lot of assumptions and stereotypes that bad neighborhoods are just a matter of bad people. In African American neighborhoods, redlining set us back to the point where we still literally haven't recovered today.”

“Those were federal policies implemented by government actors, and so now the irony and the opportunity is that we are government actors trying to reinvest and revitalize, but we're doing so in a totally different economic environment,” Dunlap said. “With the way capital flows, and the way resources flow, today people of color, in theory, are more empowered than they've ever been in the history of the United States, and so how do we provide them with the information they need to make informed decision to rebuild their own communities?”