A ZIP code, by definition, is a series of numbers used by the United States Postal Service to help map out a city or town. Though such a tool wasn’t originally intended to be more than a strategy to streamline mail delivery, factors at play—such as historic redlining and disinvestment in minority communities—make it so that one’s ZIP code is directly related to his or her quality of life. A person’s health outcomes, wealth and educational opportunities, and job prospects are directly tied to their neighborhood. In one neighborhood, recreational facilities, grocery stores, and good schools abound, while across town, residents suffer from higher rates of asthma and heart disease, don’t have immediate access to fresh foods, and children attend underfunded schools.
This story, well-known in cities and towns across the country, is explored in “ZIP Code Matters,” a new, award-winning documentary from The Fair Housing Center in Toledo, Ohio. The film, which was created during COVID-19 lockdowns, includes expert voices on the topic of fair housing, including Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.
Sena Mourad Friedman, director of development and communications for the Fair Housing Center who also wrote and directed “ZIP Code Matters,” says she envisioned the film to be short, impactful, and thought-provoking. “Right now, most of the conversations we as a nation have around redlining are the conversations we were designed to have. We’re not moving beyond that,” Friedman says. “We talk about it as though it’s something that happened, and we don’t see the implications it still has.”
The film explores ZIP code disparities in Toledo, Ohio, but transcends the city and speaks to the issue on a nationwide scale. “This didn’t just happen to somebody’s neighborhood in some small town. This happened to our nation,” Friedman says. “It happened while we were watching. That’s what makes this so egregious.”
In the film, flashes of dilapidated buildings and homes, abandoned railways, and litter-filled streets are juxtaposed with statistics on asthma rates in children and disparities in home equity rates by neighborhood. “Your ZIP code is a better determinant of your health than your DNA,” Sherrill Frost-Brown, vice president of member services and community development at the National Fair Housing Alliance, says in one segment of the film.
Megan Foos, CEO of Northwest Ohio REALTORS®, saw “ZIP Code Matters” as the perfect vehicle to help educate her 2,000 members on fair housing. “I wanted those members who had not read The Color of Law to understand the history of housing discrimination, its ramifications, and its ongoing effects,” Foos says.
She and Friedman organized a breakfast, which was held on April 4, for 220 members where they screened the film. Foos says the association is focused on building awareness around the issues that impact equitable housing in northwest Ohio and leans on the Fair Housing Center to help guide its efforts. “I think that is the first step to creating more conversations,” she says.
When the association launched its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee in January 2021, it made sure to include representatives from the Fair Housing Center. “In our first meeting, the committee agreed that we should continue to reach out to the Fair Housing Center to see what issues they are seeing and work on how we can help with those issues,” Foos says, noting that listening to the community is important to better understand what the issues are.
In addition to the breakfast and screening of “Zip Code Matters,” Foos says the association also launched an initiative to compel members to educate themselves on fair housing. “Each time they complete NAR’s Fairhaven simulation, At Home with Diversity course, and/or implicit bias training, they’re entered into a drawing for Amazon gift cards.”
With a grant from NAR, the association also worked with the Fair Housing Center to create a brochure specifically for condo associations. “The brochure highlights common fair housing mistakes made by condo associations,” Foos says. “It was sent to all of the condo associations in our market, is available to our members with the other forms we provide, and is also available through the Fair Housing Center.”
Foos says that building awareness is first on the list, but it’s just the start. The association is committed to fair housing efforts for the long-term, starting with a few upcoming events. “We will support the Fair Housing Center’s Red Shoe event this summer, and we are currently working on how we make next year’s fair housing breakfast a larger event, possibly opening it up to other community groups and elected officials.”