In 1993, a few months after being sworn in as comptroller of the currency, I joined Representative Paul Kanjorski on a tour of his central Pennsylvania congressional district. The area around Scranton, perhaps best known today as home to the fictional Dunder Mifflin Paper Company from The Office, was broadly akin to York, Pennsylvania, where I’d grown up two generations earlier, roughly 150 miles away. Both areas, rural landscapes dotted with pockets of industry, had been fairly prosperous in the postwar era of my youth. Now deteriorating, both seemed to be on the cusp of being forgotten amid the nation’s transition to the “new” information-based economy.
Kanjorski, a warm-hearted, old-style liberal sitting on the House Financial Services Committee, had invited me up to see the state of the housing market firsthand—and specifically the way federal laws affected the opportunities Black families and people of modest means had to purchase homes. A quarter century earlier, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act of 1968 (FHA), many liberals had hoped that Washington was well on its way to eliminating prejudice from the housing marketplace altogether, ensuring, in the phrase popularized by President John F. Kennedy, that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Johnson himself believed that future generations would view the FHA as a breakthrough of equal importance to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But by the late 1970s, progressives were forced to admit that the new law had not had the impact Johnson envisioned. Through a practice known as redlining, banks were skirting the spirit of Johnson’s law simply by refusing to lend to lower-income, typically Black, neighborhoods altogether.