The Burning House

Wednesday, Aug 26, 2020

How federal housing programs failed Black America.

The reenergized movement against anti-Black violence ignited by the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, among others, has inspired the reading public to turn to texts that can explain exactly how we got here. Reading lists abound with everything from histories of slavery to self-help guides on white privilege and allyship. Yet few engage with the histories of urban inequality and policing that shed light on how reporting someone using a possibly counterfeit $20 bill at an urban corner store set in motion the public execution of a Black man or how a series of alleged suburban break-ins emboldened neighborhood vigilantes to murder a jogger or why a deadly police raid authorized by a controversial no-knock warrant is entwined with a city’s rapacious gentrification plans.

The nation’s rootedness in slavery and the way white Americans have galvanized the privileges afforded them are critical to understanding the problem of race in America, but so too is the history of housing and racism in American cities. Property and racial inequality have been bound up together so tightly and for so long that we often miss the relationship, and yet we cannot understand police brutality in the United States without it. When the king of a gentrified castle doesn’t care to take up arms to protect his home, he can turn to the police, to private security, and to real estate agents to keep undesired neighbors and groups away. This form of white supremacist violence is often indirect and receives less attention, but it is violence nonetheless and keeps communities of color—in particular, Black communities—economically depressed and segregated.

Recent books like Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law and journalistic examinations like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations” have helped raise awareness about the racist history of real estate in the United States by reminding us of the intimate relationships among housing, racial inequality, and today’s racial wealth gap. But some parts of the story are still neglected. We are just beginning to confront, for example, how fixtures of the inner city—the fast-food restaurants, the payday lenders, the cash-for-homes fliers—are all outward signs of the physical and financial exploitation that was routinized in the post-civil-rights years and has undermined Black advancement, despite the passage of laws that were supposed to ensure equal treatment in housing. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor shows in Race for Profit, we are also only beginning to reckon with the complex network of bankers, real estate agents, and federal agencies that used the rhetoric of equality to obscure a set of race-to-the-bottom schemes that sought to extract as much wealth as possible from poor Black Americans.

In Race for Profit, Taylor provides new insight into many of these processes, examining one of the most exploitative attempts to bring the Black urban poor and working class into the fold of homeownership. Histories of Black urban life have focused on public housing, housing discrimination, redlining, and the rise and fall of tenants’ rights movements, but Taylor’s book shows us how tens of thousands of Black people were manipulated by the federal government and unscrupulous bankers and real estate agents through a program of predatory lending that claimed to empower Black homeowners but ultimately pushed them into greater financial insecurity. Agencies like the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) may have been founded “to transform low-income renters into low-income homeowners,” Taylor writes, but they ended up squeezing poor Black homeowners while creating lucrative financial instruments for lenders and real estate interests.

Rather than create a nation of homeowners, the housing programs of the Great Society, which relied on public-private ventures that almost always benefited the private interests, only helped to intensify racial disparities. Taylor’s book offers us a warning about the dangers of these public-private programs, which have become ever more common in our neoliberal age. It also reminds us of just how deep the roots of inequality and violence in our cities are—that even the efforts to create more black homeowners were stymied by racist stereotypes and a federal government determined to shrink its presence in the life of the poor.

A rich economic and policy history, Race for Profit begins and ends its account of housing inequality with people—those deemed either powerful or powerless in their times. There are the presidents, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, who may have diverged on civil rights but who agreed on the importance of private sector responses to public problems and, as a result, doomed efforts to remedy long-standing forms of racial inequality in American cities. There are the powerful bankers, insurance executives, and real estate traders who benefited from these private sector solutions, as well as the often well-intentioned but wrongheaded administration officials, especially George Romney, the Republican governor of Michigan who became Nixon’s HUD secretary. And in crisp and empathetic detail, Taylor also discusses the Black people who were cynically given predatory loans to purchase dilapidated houses and who eventually fought back.

Although most of Taylor’s study takes shape in the late 1960s and early ’70s, she is careful to discuss the larger arc of this history, too. Her first chapters explore how housing became an outward sign of citizenship and belonging for Black Americans in the United States and how, in the wake of the Great Migration, efforts to challenge this citizenship and belonging manifested themselves in a variety of insidious real estate practices. As Taylor shows, these practices were about reinforcing the racial order, and in doing so, they were also about supporting racial capitalism: With Black renters generating sound profits for landlords, there was little interest to change the status quo.

To tell this story, Taylor opens her book decades before the declaration of the urban crisis in the mid-1960s, with the history of Black migration to Northern cities in the first half of the century and the development of the suburbs after World War II. As she shows, this Black population growth sparked white fear, which inspired, in turn, a wave of regressive policies as well as the increasing criminalization and hyperpolicing of Black communities by many cities. From there, Taylor traces how the growth of this urban white panic calcified redlining and inspired the drafting of racially restrictive covenants, which led to the rise of the suburbs as well as efforts to take the wealth from cities and direct it to those new developments.

By the early 1950s, Black veterans had returned home from the war and saw no racial progress offered in exchange for their service. The civil rights movement was ascendant, and more Black leaders started to mobilize around the issue of housing. Activists applied considerable pressure in the North as well as the South, demanding that the federal government intervene to create better housing for Black people and later to prevent the further segregation of American cities. Yet despite new anti-segregation laws and local anti-discrimination ordinances, finding affordable housing remained a challenge. As Taylor shows, for all the old slums cleared and new shopping districts christened, for all the highways extended and mixed-income developments opened, housing options for the poor remained limited.

In fact, all this development often led to fewer choices, as these urban renewal programs simply razed cheap but necessary housing for the poor and limited the expansion of public housing, which could have provided some relief. Although some hoped that Supreme Court decisions like 1948’s Shelley v. Kraemer, which ended racially restrictive covenants, and 1954’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education would revolutionize housing practices, inequality seemed only to worsen in these years. By the end of the 1960s, “it was becoming clear,” Taylor writes, “that transforming the law was different from transforming the attitudes of the federal agents charged with enforcing the new laws or of those…private agencies where the new policies would be implemented.”

A glimmer of hope came in the late ’60s. Johnson’s massive War on Poverty and Great Society programs had begun to wrestle with the links between race and economic oppression, and soon Congress passed the Fair Housing and Housing and Urban Development acts. By creating the Office of Fair Housing and HUD, the acts empowered the federal government to enforce equal protection laws in the area of housing; they also created the Government National Mortgage Association to guarantee mortgages to low-income buyers. Although Johnson seemed to take an approach similar to Franklin Roosevelt’s by using the state, through an alphabet soup of agencies, to create programs and expand the workforce, he did something that FDR often did not: He delegated much of the work to the private sector. “Subsidies, tax relief, and government guarantees,” Taylor writes, were what Johnson relied on “to reverse course and help stem the urban crisis.” But instead of turning the tide, these generous handouts to the private sector just made matters worse.

Describing the early years of these programs, Taylor is careful to document how much of their problems were structural. The motivations behind the various initiatives were, for the most part, noble. Section 235 of the HUD Act, for example, sought to encourage homeownership for poor families by providing mortgage subsidies to lenders that offered these families loans despite their inability to meet credit requirements. Section 237 sought to assist poor families that were once ineligible for FHA-backed mortgages because of their income and credit scores; the families could now get this FHA backing after they attended a series of counseling programs and complied with a set of rules. Section 221(d)(2) allowed people receiving public assistance to obtain FHA-backed mortgages and extended the repayment period to 40 years, which made the payments more affordable.

Yet from the outset these programs, hobbled by constant mismanagement and neglect, never fully got off the ground. They were also swiftly taken advantage of by private interests. The mortgage debt acquired by first-time Black homeowners was soon viewed by banks as “oases of new investment opportunities,” Taylor writes. Lenders and insurance companies, now under growing scrutiny for their years of financing and building segregated housing, tried to rehabilitate their image while feasting off their slice of a potential $50 billion market.

Through the early ’70s, the vulnerability of these programs became more pronounced as interest rates climbed and white suburbs continued to bar Black homeowners. Burdened with predatory loans and without other support, many low-income borrowers lacked the funds to maintain houses beset by poor plumbing, faulty wiring, and other problems and soon defaulted on their loans. Rather than solve housing inequality, these public-private ventures ultimately enabled redlining to exist after it was deemed illegal. To make matters worse, when some of those participants defaulted, federal agencies and the media depicted them as undeserving welfare recipients recklessly living a life of excess while enjoying state benefits.

The HUD Act began with a rather ambitious idea: It called for building stock and eradicating racial discrimination in housing by 1978. Almost as soon as it was passed, however, housing advocates recognized how unlikely it was that these goals would be accomplished in little more than a decade. Nixon’s reelection in 1972 made it clearer how little chance the FHA and HUD programs had to achieve their goals by any date. Under his so-called New Federalism, the same states that had long denied Black people basic citizenship rights were granted more authority over local housing policies. Not surprisingly, rather than seek to mitigate widening racial inequality, these states sought to extend it.

Romney’s appointment as HUD secretary in 1969 marked a brief moment of optimism for housing advocates. While Nixon demonized Black activists and city dwellers and offered vacuous Black capitalism initiatives in response to calls for Black freedom, his choice of Romney led some to believe that HUD had been given a green light to continue in its ambitious aims. Having governed Michigan during the 1967 Detroit uprising, Romney departed from the rest of the Republican Party in championing federal measures to ensure Black equality and in challenging white hostility to civil rights, especially when it came to suburban housing.

When Romney took over HUD, however, he found himself caught between LBJ’s failed public-private programs and Nixon’s lack of interest in seeing any of them through, let alone improving them. Romney also could not let go of his racist ideas about Black fitness for citizenship and homeownership. He could be calm and levelheaded in his appeals for compassion for the dispossessed, but he could also be alarmist, warning the public that Black radicals might adopt the tactics of the Vietcong if the federal government didn’t take measures to resolve urban tensions.

Taylor guides us through the litany of programs that Romney tried to implement, including Operation Breakthrough, which sought to remedy the public housing crisis by building homes in the efficient, assembly-line style of the Motor City. But he discovered that the racism of the suburbs and the deteriorated state of the cities made finding locations for this new public housing next to impossible. Romney next looked to Project Rehab, a plan to repair and restore existing houses, but many were in a decrepit condition, and the costly fixes made them unappealing to homeowners and banks, so he soon abandoned this effort as well.

Having failed to build or rehabilitate urban housing, Romney turned to overseeing the well-chronicled Open Communities plan to integrate the suburbs, which collapsed in the face of opposition from their residents and little provision from the federal government. Each failed attempt offered Nixon and Congress an opportunity to strip HUD and its leader of more power. By the time Romney left Nixon’s cabinet, the department was mostly gutted.

Taylor is fair and clear-eyed when she describes Romney’s travails at HUD, but she also rightly holds that as “the outermost liberal edge of the Nixon administration,” he still did much to undercut attempts to “combat racism in the dissemination” of his own programs. Romney collected no racial data on their implementation, so he could never definitively name the discriminatory practices that were rampant across the FHA and that effectively blocked housing opportunities for its participants. He also allowed lenders to flout requests for data on their practices and ignored the concerns of Black HUD employees about discrimination within the agency. The Congressional Black Caucus and the Urban League questioned the quality and delivery of services to Black clients.

The disasters in HUD’s national and local offices, which were regularly investigated for mismanagement and inefficiency, were mirrored by the calamities in the individual houses that fell under the purview of its programs. In Taylor’s descriptions of the faulty boilers, constant chills, and the dangerous, sometimes life-threatening experiences of their residents, she evokes the depraved conditions depicted in Native Son and other Great Migration–era texts, reminding us how little had changed from the first half of the century. The houses proved to be a cruel joke on Black Americans who believed they were finally being welcomed into the circle of American homeownership and prosperity but were moving into homes that were in states of dangerous disrepair.

In its attempt to usher in a new era of fair housing, the FHA opened not only the housing market but also employment in the agency to Black Americans. But when Romney brought the FHA under the control of HUD, tensions between the agency’s old faithful and the new HUD officers soon erupted. Meanwhile, HUD’s efforts during and after Romney continued to prove inadequate, especially in the face of white resistance in the suburbs, where residents refused to accommodate low- and mixed-income housing.

The powerful real estate industry also created obstacles, as developers looked to simply repurpose segregated urban spaces instead of building homes in undeveloped suburban ones. To address these quandaries, Romney shifted his focus from building to rehabilitating houses in the communities in need, but these efforts proved to do little more than breathe faint life into slums. As Taylor notes, “The poorest people eligible to participate in the FHA homeownership program lived in proximity to housing that was in the lowest, often substandard condition.”

Real estate profiteers play a starring role throughout this grim affair. Real estate agents posed as landlords and were in cahoots with appraisers, who were friendly with contractors, who were sometimes investors in the banks that handed out predatory loans. Discussing the long history of property appraisals and their racist pseudoscientific underpinnings, Taylor illustrates that the problem wasn’t just with the lenders; more profoundly, it was also with the entire logic of the market for mortgage-backed securities, a many-headed monster that fed on volume and was stuffed with graft and fraud. Even if the HUD subsidies were unattractive to traditional lenders, bankers and brokers found ways to profit from discount points and fees and unregulated ways to resell the mortgages.

Taylor’s book also highlights Black families—in particular, those headed by Black women—that found themselves squeezed by these unscrupulous practices. The tales she compiles are often gut-wrenching. We meet Alice Mundy, who purchased a house in Detroit for $9,750, even though it was acquired a year earlier by a local development corporation for just $3,000. Soon after moving in, she discovered a rat infestation and holes in the ceiling. After calling the city for help, she was fined for the house’s poor condition and ultimately lost it because she could not afford the penalties. A Detroit real estate company purchased a house below market rate and then sold it the same day to Sally Fordham for a $3,500 profit. What she found when she moved in was horrifying: The house lacked a working furnace, and poor plumbing caused human waste to pool in the basement. Fordham sought help from local Legal Aid attorneys, who merely advised her to stop making mortgage payments and search for other housing options. Such woes were not hers alone: More than 40 percent of Black mothers who owned homes in Detroit and were receiving Aid to Families With Dependent Children saw their homes fall into foreclosure in a similar fashion.

Although women nationwide who received AFDC funding had only a 3.5 percent foreclosure rate, media reports often implied that many of the Black women who lost their homes through FHA programs were on welfare, helping create the insidious image of the welfare cheat, which served to enhance racist stereotypes and helped hasten an end to programs like AFDC. As Taylor documents, rather than being informed of their rights and responsibilities as the recipients of housing assistance, these home buyers were often given only counseling that furthered these stereotypes. Instead of ending the sale of dilapidated houses to poor families, the federal government issued pamphlets like “Housekeeping Job Sheets for Use With Aspiring Homemakers” and “How to Keep a Stove Clean.” Needless to say, housing inequality worsened under these circumstances. As Taylor writes, the tremendous “downward pressure on the quality of [the] housing” that Black people could secure made it nearly impossible for FHA mortgage receivers to find themselves in a safe home and with the resources to maintain it adequately.

Good intentions and bad outcomes run throughout Taylor’s narrative. Whether it was Romney’s desire to see some type of racial integration in American suburbs or the efforts of Milwaukee-based FHA program director Lawrence Katz, who supplied Black women with sometimes helpful (but often infantilizing) tips on homemaking, white liberal politicians proved incapable of seeing or overcoming the limits of the public-private programs that created greater segregation. In the absence of substantial government funding and responsible oversight, these programs were guaranteed never to succeed.

Some of the most powerful parts of Taylor’s book examine how Black homeowners came together to fight back. Black women in Seattle collectively sued HUD for its failure to ensure that the properties sold to them met “the requirements of all state laws, or local ordinances,” as stated in Section 235. This provision was routinely ignored as contractors collected fees for services never rendered and repairs never made. Eventually Congress updated the legislation to allow reimbursement for “damages in the amounts that [home buyers] had paid to have repairs done” after purchasing these homes.

Likewise in the early ’70s, a set of Black homeowners began to testify before Congress and turn to other movement tactics, including mounting picket lines outside local FHA offices. Homeowners offered interviews to investigative journalists and risked being further embarrassed or made to feel ashamed for their living conditions. From Kansas City, Mo., to Paterson, N.J., their stories were eerily similar: These home buyers were poor, Black, and desperate to find a place to live. They owned houses that were certified as safe by HUD affiliates but were a nightmare of neglect and disrepair.

By the mid-’70s, the federal experiment in encouraging Black homeownership had collapsed. A deflated Romney announced in 1973 an indefinite moratorium on any funding for housing assistance programs or construction of low-income housing nationwide. Although he had tried to prevent such an extreme measure, he was unable to prevail against Nixon’s desire to keep the US government from intervening to foster meaningful change in housing. As Taylor sums it up, “Nixon’s decisive victory over McGovern provided a political mandate to move away from federal involvement in cities.”

Even after Watergate forced Nixon out of office, the ghosts of his New Federalism continued to haunt both the Republicans’ and the Democrats’ approaches to poverty. Gerald Ford signed the Housing and Community Development Act into law, which further removed Washington from the management of housing programs. The legislation provided for “‘no strings attached’ revenue sharing and block grants that were touted as new, innovative tools that would transform ‘urban renewal’ into ‘community development.’” With states allowed discretion over what funding for housing would look like, Black home seekers found themselves subject to the whims of localities that were more likely to protect suburban homeowners and the value of their property, especially given the decade’s economic instability.

The failures of HUD also set the stage for our current housing crisis by creating a path for the convergence of “neoliberalism and neoconservatism,” Taylor writes, around “the demonization of working-class and poor Black people in cities to undermine the legitimacy of a welfare state perceived to be prioritizing the care of ‘undeserving’ African Americans.”

This meeting of the center left and center right in both parties not only resulted in smaller government for the poor, tax breaks for the rich, and a colorblind approach toward policy; it also helped create more draconian measures for welfare recipients and regulations on access to public housing under Bill Clinton’s massive welfare “reform” measures in the 1990s.

Housing inequality remains a pressing issue in the struggle for racial justice in the United States. According to the Census Bureau, Black families have lagged the general population in homeownership for the past 70 years. From the post–World War II era to the start of the Reagan years, Black homeownership rates rose from 35 to 44 percent. These rates remained relatively steady from the 1970s to the 2008 financial crisis, which hurt Black homeowners the most because they were more likely to hold shaky subprime mortgages. Nor did they enjoy the benefits of the post-recovery housing market, because they tended to own cheaper homes in neighborhoods considered less desirable. In fact, nearly a decade after the crisis, there remains a 30 percentage point difference in homeownership rates for white and Black Americans. This gap exacerbates the vulnerability of Black people to foreclosure and worsens the wealth gap, as well as drives further criminalization and police brutality when Black city dwellers attempt to move outside racially homogenous neighborhoods.

Today, with short-term eviction relief due to the Covid-19 pandemic set to expire and low interest rates fueling increases in home prices, advocates for affordable housing may look to Taylor’s book as they prepare themselves for another looming calamity. What is still unclear is whether the fair housing planks of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign or the leadership of Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamaal Bowman on housing issues will inspire a wider commitment by the Democratic Party to address this crisis. As the cries to cancel rent become louder, progressive leaders must focus more and more of their energy on creating policies that keep housing affordable for all people.

Over the past few years, on the anniversary of the Fair Housing Act’s passage, a pundit or observer would invariably ask why, in light of the long-standing legislation against housing discrimination and the supposed growth in economic opportunity for Black Americans, the Black homeownership rate was still at pre–Housing Act levels. In response, some cite the lack of generational wealth transfer among Black Americans and ongoing lending discrimination, but few consider that it might be due to the very system of racial capitalism that exists in the United States.

James Baldwin’s and Martin Luther King Jr.’s warnings that Black Americans should be cautious about integrating into a “burning house” seems an apt metaphor here. What we need is a new housing system altogether. As the 2008 crisis reminded many Americans, as long as housing is tied to a for-profit system that mercilessly exploits vulnerable families instead of empowering them and as long as values rise and fall relative to racist perceptions of what is a good or bad school district and who makes good or bad neighbors, housing inequality will persist—a burning house, indeed.

[Originally published on August 25, 2020 via The Nation]

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