Analysis & Comment

Opinion | When the Dream of Owning a Home Became a Nightmare

When tens of thousands of African-Americans held the keys to their first homes in the early 1970s as part of a new federal program that encouraged black homeownership, they thought they were about to fulfill the American dream. Instead they got an American nightmare.

The story begins with the urban uprisings of the late 1960s, which were reactions to decades of poverty, racism and a lack of opportunity. According to the Kerner Commission, a major cause was government-sponsored housing segregation that had confined African-Americans to rental housing in urban neighborhoods while subsidizing white flight to the suburbs. Black people, too, wanted to enjoy the benefits of homeownership and the uprisings pressured Washington to take that seriously.

Richard Nixon gave voice to a shift in government policy in 1968 when he declared that “people who own their own homes don’t burn their neighborhoods.” The Housing and Urban Development Act of 1968 created policies that let low-income black renters, long excluded from conventional mortgages and other standard ways of financing homes, become homeowners.

At the core of the law were three components: A down payment cost only $200; a buyer’s mortgage was linked to her income, not her house’s value; and the interest rate on the loan, subsidized by the federal government, was capped at 1 percent.

It was a boon — at least for banks and the real estate industry.

The Federal Housing Administration backed mortgages arranged through this program and bankers didn’t have to worry about foreclosures or defaults because if buyers fell behind on their payment, Washington would simply pay off the loan. An unprecedented number of black renters in Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago and other urban centers became homeowners.

But the program was troubled from the start. The conditions that allowed for homeownership also set the groundwork for fraud. Racist exclusion gave way to predatory inclusion.

Speculators bought decrepit or even condemned houses on the cheap and then quickly flipped them. F.H.A. appraisers, often part-time real estate agents, would sometimes pocket bribes to inflate the value of the house.

Meanwhile, bankers signed off on bloated appraisals because Washington absorbed the risk. These bankers made money on both the fees to make the loan and the closing costs to sell the house, so they cared only about issuing a huge number of mortgages, which they’d package and resell. It didn’t matter to them whether a house went into foreclosure.

In turn, black buyers were paying more for homes that were older and shoddier than the ones their white peers were buying in the suburbs. As a result, the nation’s first programs to encourage black homeownership ended in the 1980s with tens of thousands of foreclosures. The push to uplift black homeownership had turned into a gold mine for real estate agents and mortgage lenders. And champions of deregulation could point to it as an example of the dangers of government intervention.

One of the Americans who saw their hopes of owning a home shattered was Janice Johnson, a black single mother on welfare and living about as far from the lily-white suburbs as a person could get. She and her 8-year-old son had lived in a decaying apartment, in a building that had recently been condemned by city officials, in a working-class black neighborhood in Northeast Philadelphia.

Facing eviction, Ms. Johnson needed to quickly find a new place to live. Her mother told her of an apartment for rent in the same neighborhood. Instead the landlord suggested that she buy a house there through the new HUD program.

Ms. Johnson bought her first home in September 1970. But days after she moved in, the sewer line broke, spewing wastewater all over the basement floor. The electricity was sporadic and haphazard. There were holes in the foundation. The windows were nailed shut and inoperable. The floorboards in her dining room were so rotten, she feared her table would fall through the floor.

The crumbling structure of the house was not the wors­­­­­­­t of it.

The day before Halloween, Ms. Johnson’s son woke up to find a rat in his bed. Rats were everywhere, including in the kitchen and bathroom, entering the house through holes in the basement, where they made their nests.

She called the real estate agent who sold her the house to complain. He sent workmen out a couple of times, and they even patched the failing plaster in her dining room; but soon after, the agent reminded her that the problems in her house were “homeowner’s business.”

The details of Ms. Johnson’s woes come from a court case; it’s unclear how her story ends.

There were thousands of cases like hers from Memphis to Minneapolis and they made front-page news. The Chicago Tribune even won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for its coverage of this crisis. Generous government subsidies had helped the real estate and banking industries overcome their reluctance to sell and lend to African-Americans. But of course they never stopped believing blacks presented a threat to property values, perpetuating the real estate industry’s segregationist practices.

While the policies created by the Housing and Urban Development Act did not immediately change the practices or the beliefs within the real estate industry — or among agents working for the Federal Housing Administration — it did allow for the participation of broader networks of real estate operatives and lenders that circulated billions of new dollars throughout the urban housing market.

This public-private partnership in the production of low-income housing tethered the public agencies of HUD and the F.H.A. to real estate brokers, mortgage bankers and homebuilders. These close relationships made it unlikely that anti-discrimination laws would be aggressively enforced. This allowed banks and real estate agents to continue to illegally steer black buyers away from neighborhoods with better housing at better prices.

One reason for the reluctance to push industry to obey federal laws was that federal workers eventually wanted jobs in the more lucrative private real estate industry. Another was that too much regulation could prompt the private partners to take their business far from the red tape of government.

The recruiting of thousands of poor black women as homeowners was strategic for an industry in search of new customers — and underlined the dubiousness of the program.

Real estate brokers and mortgage bankers valued black women like Janice Johnson precisely because they were poor, desperate and likely to fall behind on their payments. The HUD-F.H.A. guarantee to pay lenders in full for the mortgage of any home in foreclosure transformed risk from a reason for exclusion into an incentive for inclusion. Banks could profit from being repaid for inflated mortgages, and profit again when the foreclosed property was resold to another poor family that qualified for a government-guaranteed mortgage.

When the federal government guaranteed Ms. Johnson’s mortgage, it became implicated in the shoddy business practices of private sector agents bent on profiting from the desperation of low-income urban residents. A legacy of the failure of the program is that it contributed to the conditions that eventually allowed for the widespread use of subprime loans. Indiscriminate F.H.A. lending that resulted in mass foreclosures in the 1970s helped cement the perception of black neighborhoods as dilapidated and deteriorating — which became the basis for declaring a place, or even a person, subprime.

Racial discrimination persisted in the new market because it was good business, not simply because the industry was stuck in its old ways. Our failure to fully recognize this history has meant that housing policy continues to uncritically revolve around market-based solutions even as black homeownership rates fall to historic lows.

It’s hard to uproot these predatory practices because race has been so important to the real estate industry’s bottom line. At the very least, Washington must renew its commitment to aggressively enforce its own civil rights laws and ruthlessly punish offenders. This could finally undo the ways that racial inequality has continued to find value in our housing market.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (@KeeangaYamahtta), an assistant professor of African-American studies at Princeton, is the author of the forthcoming “Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership,” from which this essay is adapted.

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