Redlining, Racial Covenants, and Housing Discrimination in Tacoma

  • By Anthony Long
  • Posted 6/12/2024
  • Essay 22992
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Tacoma has a documented history of rampant housing discrimination in the early to mid-twentieth century. The city used a web of legal and customary practices to codify residential segregation. Beginning in the 1900s and continuing into the 1950s, the private sector in real estate used racial covenants as legally binding agreements to bar people of color from buying, renting, or occupying property. In the mid-1930s the Federal government made policies to further impose segregated neighborhoods. The Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) drew "redlining maps" for Tacoma to aid banks and mortgage lenders in identifying safe areas for investments. These maps used the color red for neighborhoods deemed "hazardous" for lenders. Race was a primary condition of determining redlined neighborhoods, while the HOLC awarded high scores to neighborhoods with racially restrictive covenants. Redlining made it difficult for non-white residents to purchase or maintain homes, often denying them access to loans on account of their race. Redlining policies worked in tandem with racial covenants to prevent non-whites from living in over two-thirds of the city. Local activists fought back to eliminate overt forms of discrimination until the passage of the federal Fair Housing Act of 1968, but the residual effects of redlining and racial covenants are still being felt.

"Segregation Lite"

Tacoma was already a predominantly white city when racial covenants and the HOLC redlining maps took form in the early twentieth century. This was in part due to white citizens violently expelling the city’s Chinese residents in 1885. By the 1940 census, about 84 percent of Tacoma's population was listed as "Native-born white," with another 14.5 percent listed as "foreign-born white" ("Mapping Inequality ..."). The city's small number of non-white residents were clustered into racially segregated neighborhoods along the southern and western portions of the industrial waterfront. These areas also were home to thousands of white immigrant laborers from various parts of Europe. People of color were not often subjected to the overt racism that was notorious in other parts of the United States. On the surface, Tacoma looked open and welcoming. Nowhere in the city could you find "White Only" signs to segregate public accommodations, but it did have discriminatory customs, especially in housing. One Black resident called it "segregation-lite, just as deadly but refined for the Northwest palette" (Moss, 20).

Tacoma’s tightknit Japanese community's daily path reflected a segregated city with discriminatory land and citizenship laws. The tiny African American population faced similar restrictions because of race. Tacoma’s Black community remained loose and dispersed, with most being consolidated south of the industrial waterfront. Their population began surging in the 1940s with an influx of Blacks recruited to work in the defense industry during World War II. Many African Americans moved into homes formerly occupied by Japanese Americans who had been incarcerated during the war. Others moved into the Salishan projects, a racially integrated wartime housing development in South Tacoma. With options fast becoming limited, many African Americans sought other housing options outside of the Hilltop area. However, they would face complex legal and customary barriers designed to keep them excluded from other parts of the city.

Restrictions by Covenant

Racially restrictive covenants were imposed to enforce segregation in cities and towns across the U.S. in the early and middle twentieth century. Real estate agencies, land developers, neighborhood associations, and individual property owners used covenants to "protect" property. These binding agreements became common use when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled them enforceable contracts in 1926. Covenants banned the selling or renting of properties to specified racial and ethnic groups. Real estate transactions that violated covenants could be voided and reversed. The buyer and seller could be held liable for substantial damages for breaking the written agreement. Covenants contained explicit language that captured the racism flourishing in American society. One covenant from the Narrowmoor Addition in Tacoma's West End stated:

"No part or parcel of land or improvement thereon shall be rented or leased to or used or occupied, in whole or in part, by any person of African or Asiatic descent, nor by any person not of the white or Caucasian race, other than domestic servants, domiciles with an owner or tenant and living in their home" ("Tacoma and Pierce County ...").

The earliest racial covenants in Tacoma were written in the early 1910s, and the numbers of these clauses proliferated as new subdivisions were constructed in the coming decades. Areas subdivided between 1925 and 1948 were built with segregation in mind, which bankers at the time thought protected property values. Realtors and developers wrote racial exclusions to boost property values in future neighborhoods as the city continued its rapid development. Older areas were more complicated to restrict. Neighborhood organizations usually resorted to petition drives to convince white homeowners to add racially restrictive covenants to their properties. Areas without covenants often were not open to housing for people of color. Other means were used to keep those neighborhoods white. Covenants would continue to be employed to enforce segregation well into the 1950s.


As covenants were used to impose segregation, the machinery of the federal government created policies to codify it. To address the housing crisis, exacerbated by the Great Depression, in the 1930s, the government embarked on a campaign to increase homeownership and provide relief for countless Americans struggling from defaulting on their homes. In 1933, New Deal legislation established the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC) to help refinance home mortgages currently in default to prevent foreclosure, as well as to expand home-buying opportunities. Looking to be prudent in determining potential borrowers' ability to avoid defaulting on a loan, HOLC hired local real estate agents, mortgage lenders, and developers to canvas neighborhoods and make appraisals on homes. Tacoma’s agents assessed the city’s neighborhoods, considering the quality of existing housing and income of residents in the area. While ranking desirability, they also explicitly considered race. The government used the local agents' findings to produce color-coded maps that graded areas for their lending risk. The colors ranged from green ("best") to blue ("still desirable") to yellow ("definitely declining") to red ("hazardous").

Tacoma’s "residential security map" was drawn in 1937 with many parts of the city graded as "definitely declining" due to their proximity to industrial infrastructure, their distance from the city center, and the poor conditions of their streets. Areas given the most favorable rating, such as the North End, were lauded for their white, "homogenous population," largely consisting of white American-born business professionals, and for their "Inspiring Marine and Mountain views" ("Mapping Inequality ..."). The Hilltop neighborhood was graded poorly for having "many" relief families and an "inharmonious population, much of which is of the lower strata." This rating was given despite street improvements and proximity to the city center. Three other districts, each only a few blocks wide, were downgraded by the HOLC because they were home to a small number of Black families. HOLC described the three Black families who lived in the Proctor neighborhood as "very much above the average of their race," but stated that "realtors recognized ... that their presence seriously detracts from the desirability of their immediate neighborhood" ("Mapping Inequality ..."). The intent of redlining in Tacoma was not merely to reinforce the segregation of the city's non-white communities, but to single out and discriminate against the few non-white families who had found homes in the city's preferred neighborhoods. Because of this, banks used these redlining maps to deny communities of color access to mortgages and loans. City planners and landowners took guidance from redlining maps and incorporated racially restrictive covenants into neighborhoods.

Dreams and Opportunities Denied

Racially restrictive covenants were outlawed in 1948 when the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Shelley v. Kramer that they were unconstitutional and unenforceable. Armed with the law, a married African American couple set out to find a decent neighborhood with land to build a home and start their new lives in Tacoma. Harold and Williebell 'Bil' Moss’s search proved to be a daunting and humiliating experience. In 1953, the couple found a vacant lot for sale in the Moorlands subdivision. Harold, a recently honorable discharged veteran, called the property owner, Mr. Miller, to inquire about the sale of the land. During their conversation, Miller asked if Moss was a Negro. When he replied yes, Miller stated that he could not sell him the land and promptly hung up.

Moss eventually was able to purchase the land through a fair-complexioned friend who could pass as white. But when the deed to the land was transferred to Moss, the landowner confronted him and demanded that he sell the plat back at once. Refusing, Moss set out to obtain a contractor and construction loan to build his home. Despite being qualified for a VA housing loan, banks in Tacoma and Seattle repeatedly denied him the construction loan because of his race.

Now owning a lot he couldn't build on, Moss decided to try another route and buy a home instead. If interested in houses outside the color line, Moss recalled that, "you had to game the real estate agent, or he would game you" (Moss, 14). He noted that Blacks would use their 'white voice' when calling about a house. When the time of the showing is set, Moss wrote in his autobiography, you park down the street because the minute the agent sees that you are Black, they will drive off. It was best to catch the agent off guard as he was walking up to the house and introduce yourself to the homeowner. If you were able to get inside, a few things could happen. The owner would tell the agent to 'get these people out of my house' or that another offer had been accepted by the previous visitors. The agent could tell you that there were no other colored people in the neighborhood and neighbors were not friendly to Negroes. He would also say that it would be difficult to get a loan and steer them to a Black real estate agent who would show them properties within the color line (Moss, Fighting for Dreams ...)

Undaunted by the house-hunting waltz, the Mosses found a home they liked and made an offer. The owner was a minister who was eager to move but hesitant to sell to a Black family. He said he would not forgive himself for selling his home to Black people without the consent of his neighbors. Harold and Bil agreed to meet with the neighbors in hopes of winning them over. What they thought would be a civil discussion with future neighbors turned out to be an ambush. The first neighbor did not answer the door, even though they could see her watching from inside the home. The Mosses were invited inside a second house when suddenly the back door opened and a horde of people came inside. The neighbors began saying no to them moving into the area and claiming that their properties would get devalued if they moved in. The white residents then peppered the couple with insulting accusations. "Who sent you here? Why don’t you go where you are wanted in Hilltop? You people trash your homes and destroy other people’s property, other Negroes will follow and ruin our neighborhood" (Moss, 16). The encounter stung the couple and the pain of those memories remained evident well into their lives.

It took two years for Harold Moss’s dream of homeownership to be realized. In 1955, he overcame the uphill battle to build his first home on the plot he had purchased from Miller in the Moorlands subdivision. Moss found a bank in Portland to finance construction. After the exhausting and humiliating experience of obtaining a home, Moss vowed to fight discrimination in all forms. He embarked on a life dedicated to civil rights and eventually became Tacoma’s first Black mayor in 1994.

Fighting Back

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, African Americans found it increasingly difficult to buy or rent. Discriminatory customs prevented Black servicemen from living in the towns that surrounded Fort Lewis or McChord Airfield. They had to take their chances in Tacoma. Civil rights icon Thomas Dixon recalled that even while dressed in their military uniforms, they were denied by home and property owners from getting a place to live. As housing discrimination persisted, an organized local movement emerged to fight back. As the civil rights movement was in full swing throughout the nation, local leaders worked to eliminate all forms of discrimination in Tacoma. Civil rights organizations including the NAACP and Tacoma Urban League, religious groups, and liberal-minded white organizations led crusades against segregation. These groups advocated for an "open housing" ordinance, a law requiring that property transactions take place free of race-based discrimination. Momentum for a local fair-housing law began in 1960 when Tacoma City Council member Clara Goering introduced an open-house ordinance but could not get enough support for its passage. By 1963, Tacoma Mayor Harold Tollefson and most of the city council expressed support for open housing.

After numerous stormy debates in city hall, the council voted 7-2 to enact an open-house ordinance as law. However, Tacoma’s Board of Realtors countered. Real estate agents at the time believed in the racist theory that the presence of African Americans would degrade property values. The group contended that this "forced" ordinance trampled upon property rights and the individual freedom to sell or rent to anyone a person chooses. Gordon Fors of the Board of Realtors stated, "the real issue isn't better housing for anyone, but the individual right of the property owner. If he can’t rent or sell to whom he wishes, he is no longer free" ("'Pressure' Irks City Councilmen"). The Realtors and Home Builders Association of Tacoma and the Independent Apartment House Owners mounted a successful referendum to place the open-housing ordinance on the February 11, 1964, ballot.

The open-housing ordinance polarized the city before the scheduled vote. While opposition was strong, support among those in favor was fractured ("Tacoma Negros Split ..."). Jack Tanner, president of the Tacoma chapter of the NAACP, argued against the ordinance being left up to voters, knowing that it would ultimately fail. Tanner believed that it was illegal to vote to uphold a guaranteed right and did not want to be bound to the results of the referendum. He called for Black citizens to refrain from voting on the issue, much to the disapproval of the NAACP’s national office. Other African American leaders condemned this strategy. Reverends E. S. Brazill and J. A. Bolles urged citizens to vote in favor of the open-house law. The buzz around the upcoming vote attracted national media attention interested in the huge implications the vote could have in the national civil rights movement. Despite their best efforts, the Open Housing Ordinance was soundly rejected at the polls by a 3-1 margin.

Winning the Battle

Despite the results at the polls, civil rights leaders and equal-housing advocates pressed on. While looking to desegregate housing, they looked to rehabilitate Tacoma's decaying Hilltop neighborhood. Decades of housing discrimination contributed to the blighting of the area. Civil rights leaders worked to obtain federal funds through urban renewal and the Model Cities program to rejuvenate Hilltop. These anti-poverty programs emphasized social programs and physical renewal. Just as the outlook to revitalize Hilltop looked promising, the 1967 mayoral election cast doubt on bringing the federal programs to the city. Albert Lawrence "Slim" Rasmussen was elected mayor, bringing a hostile era in Tacoma city politics. Rasmussen played to his blue-collar South Tacoma base by assailing urban renewal and model cities programs as wasteful federal spending to fuel his victory ("Tacoma Voters Recall ..."). Rasmussen’s open hostility to federal anti-poverty programs resulted in model city funds getting withdrawn from Tacoma and given to other cities. The mayor’s rebuke of programs designed to address racism and poverty put him at odds with many of the civil rights leaders in the city. Further adding to the disharmony, Rasmussen attacked the city’s multiracial Human Rights Commission in his crusade to dismantle it completely, charging that the group was biased against white citizens ("Mayor Plans Secret Meeting ...").

In 1967 open-housing proponents faced another setback as legislation that criminalized housing discrimination in the city was again soundly defeated in the polls. But by 1968, the racial unrest roiling cities across the nation deeply concerned the city’s white leaders. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4 of that year led to an urgency amongst national and local leaders to pass fair-housing laws. A few weeks later, the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and the Fair Housing Act were passed, outlawing racial discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of housing. In May, the Tacoma City Council enacted an open-housing ordinance through an emergency clause, preventing it from being sent to a referendum. Mayor Rasmussen served as the architect of the ordinance and put an Open Housing Review Board in charge of reviewing all complaints in the city. However, civil rights leaders and even the Tacoma Board of Realtors criticized the law as weak ("Housing Law Goes on Books ..."). Both groups cited loopholes that allowed homeowners to discriminate in sales and rentals if a real estate agent was not involved in the transaction.

The city council voted to include tougher measures to the law, but the ordinance remained mostly inadequate. The Open Housing Review Board came under fire for lack of action in investigating complaints of housing discrimination. The city’s Human Rights Commission noted that the ordinance and the review board left "much to be desired" ("Open Housing Board Rejects Offer"). The commission offered to take over the investigation of complaints, a common practice carried out in other municipalities. Despite criticism from the NAACP delegates on the board, a majority board vote refused the commission’s offer and rebuffed meetings with civil rights groups. Frustrated by the continued lack of action, the Tacoma NAACP withdrew its representation from the review board in March 1969. Former member John Epps highlighted that most of the board used "the loopholes in the ordinance as an excuse to do nothing." He said the ordinance and the board "failed to improve the housing picture for minorities in Tacoma" ("Epps Says Mayor 'Discriminating'").

The frustration of slow change and the charged atmosphere of city politics came to a head on May 11, 1969. That night, violence erupted in Hilltop after police attempted to arrest a Black man. The "Mother’s Day Disturbance" shook Tacoma to its core. The night of rioting exposed the seeds that caused similar incidents across the nation during the 1960s — "a black population concentrated by residential discrimination in a deteriorating inner-city neighborhood, the lack of economic opportunity and political representation, and the gulf between the promise of equal rights and the daily reality of black life” ("Mother’s Day Disturbance, 1969"). In the aftermath of the incident, Rasmussen lost the election in November 1969, and the next year, a citizens’ recall movement removed his allies from the city council. As political calm returned to City Hall, a stronger open-housing ordinance was enacted in 1970 by the city council. Tacoma thus began its slow process to diversify and desegregate in the decades that followed.


While subtle forms of housing discrimination persist in 2024, redlining and other blatant forms have been outlawed through federal, state, and local measures. In 1977 the Washington State Legislature passed HB 323, making it unlawful for financial institutions to deny or vary the terms of a loan in any neighborhood. In 2006 and 2018, the state passed legislation to ease the process and enable property owners to strike racially restrictive covenants from property records.

Tacoma still bears the scars of redlining’s crippling legacy. The non-white population remains concentrated in neighborhoods around the I-5 bend. Coastal neighborhoods originally greenlined in the 1930s remain affluent and overwhelmingly white. Pervasive housing discrimination contributed greatly to the current racial wealth gap. Not only did these policies exclude people of color from the housing market, they denied the equity, financial security, and generational wealth that home ownership provides. The residual effects are apparent when comparing the Hilltop and North End neighborhoods. People living in formerly redlined neighborhoods earn far less, are less likely to have college degrees, and are far less likely to own homes.

A lingering effect of redlining is the level of homeownership by African Americans. The percentage of Black families owning homes was stagnant from the 1950s forward and has declined in recent decades. The rapid gentrification of the Hilltop neighborhood has made the area increasingly unaffordable for many low-income and non-white community members. Ironically, laws against redlining practices by banks and lenders helped fuel the process of displacement, as most loans were given to white applicants. Decades of being denied home ownership and depreciated home values left residents with little equity to benefit from the rising property values or afford to continue living in gentrifying areas.

However, civil rights groups remain active in the fight for housing equity and curbing displacement. The Tacoma Urban League and the Tacoma-Pierce County Habitat for Humanity launched the Pathways to Homeownership Program to help people of color navigate barriers to buying a home. In 2023, the Washington State Legislature passed the Covenant Homeownership Act, making Washington the first state to address the role of government institutions in housing-related discrimination and racism. While the road forward is far from clear, local activists, Tacoma policy makers, and state agencies are working to right the wrongs of the past.


Barbara Johns, “Mother’s Day Disturbance, 1969,” accessed June 10, 2024 (; HistoryLink Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, “Tacoma Voters Recall Five City Council Members on September 15, 1970” (by Bill Baarsma) (accessed June 1, 2024); Denny MacGougan, "‘Pressure’ Irks City Councilmen," The News Tribune, September 11, 1963, p. 2; “Epps Says Mayor ‘Discriminating’,” Ibid., April 16, 1969, p. 1; Harold G. Moss, Fighting for Dreams that Mattered: An Autobiography (CreateSpace, 2016); UW Civil Rights and Labor Consortium, "Mapping Race and Segregation in Tacoma and Pierce County 1950-2020," accessed June 1, 2024 (; Helen I. Gilmore, "Actions Speak Louder Than Words: Helen Cecile Beck Stafford," Tacoma Community History Project, UW Tacoma, CHP 1993 No. 03; Lisa M. Hoffman and Mary L. Hoffman, Becoming Nisei: Japanese American Urban Lives in Prewar Tacoma (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2020); Kate Martin, “How Racism Kept Black Tacomans from Buying Houses for Decades,” The News Tribune, December 1, 2021 (; “Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America,” University of Richmond Digital Scholarship Lab (; 
“Mapping Race and Segregation in Tacoma and Pierce County 1950-2020,” Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium, University of Washington (; Rod Cardwell, “Housing Law Goes on Books; Emergency Control Passes,” The News Tribune, May 1, 1968, p. 2; Rod Cardwell, “Mayor Plans Secret Meeting on Housing,” Ibid., April 26, 1968, p. 1; Rod Cardwell, “Open Housing Board Rejects Offer to Turn Over Complaints,” Ibid., January 24, 1969, p. 23; “Tacoma and Pierce County Racial Restrictive Covenants,” Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium, University of Washington, Tacoma and Pierce County - Racial Restrictive Covenants Project (; “Tacoma Negros Split Over Open House Vote,” The News Tribune, December 22, 1963, p. 5; Tacoma Public Library, “Redlining in Tacoma," (

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