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Lisa Bates
Lisa Bates

Fair Housing

Understanding history, culture, and policy

When urban studies and planning professor Lisa Bates looks at a neighborhood, she sees more than buildings. She sees how economic policy, institutional racism, and human perception contribute to housing inequities after catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina and in Portland's urban revitalization. With data as her ally, Bates uses her work to pose a powerful question: Can we do better?

After Hurricane Katrina, PSU urban studies and planning professor Lisa Bates asked an intriguing question: How do we decide where rebuilding happens?

Bates worked with a team of researchers to examine the data government officials used to determine which New Orleans neighborhoods were recoverable. What they found was built-in bias against low-income communities of color. By looking at data, such as water patterns from the flood, the team realized that "nicer houses were given the thumbs up and more modest houses were given the thumbs down," despite having the same level of flooding, Bates says.

Post-Katrina New Orleans is an extreme, albeit telling, example of how economic policy, institutional racism, and human perception interplay to create housing inequity. That intersection lies at the heart of Bates’ work, which brought her to PSU in 2009.

While Portland isn't as diverse as other cities, similar issues arise here, Bates says. Understanding the cultural piece is an important part of Bates' work with the Portland Housing Center, which a year ago started offering culturally specific finance classes for African Americans. Through her work in Portland and elsewhere, Bates found that African Americans tend to underestimate their credit worthiness compared with others with the same credit score.

A history of institutional racism, such as redlining by banks, also contributed to which populations are highly represented among subprime mortgage buyers and foreclosures, Bates says. Minority and low-income neighborhoods that experienced financing discrimination were less likely to trust banks and more likely to pick mortgage brokers in the community, who convinced residents to sign up for risky mortgages.

When consumer behavior is tied so closely to discrimination and institutional racism, "we can't just look at poor people or African American people or immigrants and imply that by themselves they should change their behavior, without looking up to the policy level," Bates says. 

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