How Real Estate Segregated AmericaRoundup
tags: racism, segregation
In a year of many anniversaries, two in particular stand out with respect to the housing crisis facing the United States today. The first is the passage of Title VIII of the 1968 Civil Rights Act, more commonly known as the Fair Housing Act. In some ways, the legislation bitterly acknowledged the role of housing discrimination in keeping African Americans in a subordinate social position. Excluding Black people from white neighborhoods, while simultaneously disinvesting in Black communities, has kept them out of the best-funded schools and highest-paying jobs. Housing discrimination was a linchpin of Black inequality in American society, and the Fair Housing Act held out the promise of undoing it by banning racial discrimination in the renting, financing, and selling of housing.
The second anniversary is that of the 2008 financial crisis—perhaps the starkest sign of the palpable failure of the Fair Housing Act to fulfill its mandate. Not only did the crisis wipe out decades’ worth of hard-won financial gains for African Americans, but it stole their homes as well. In 2010 almost half a million African Americans were at risk of foreclosure, and by 2014 more than 240,000 had lost their homes. This historic collapse in Black homeownership is an important part of why the wealth gap between Black and white Americans is larger today than it has been in decades. In 2007, right before the crash, the median white family had eight times the wealth of the median Black family. By 2013, that figure had risen to eleven times, and it has tapered off only slightly since.
The subprime mortgage crisis, and the wider housing and economic crisis it produced, was the culmination of a long period of predatory inclusion of African Americans in the housing market, which can be traced back to the era of housing and credit reform in the late 1960s and 1970s. After decades of exclusion, African Americans were finally promised access to the robust housing market that had fueled the ascension of the white middle class in the second half of the twentieth century. Instead, they were subjected to rapacious lending and real-estate practices that extended familiar patterns of discrimination. As the early-2000s housing bubble was peaking, African Americans were 50 percent more likely than their white peers to receive a subprime loan. Those loans, it is widely understood today, were more expensive and carried higher interest rates. The terms of these loans increased the probability of their failure, and their concentration in Black neighborhoods promised not just to ruin an individual’s credit but to undermine the stability of entire communities. The real-estate industry created the idea that Black homeowners posed a risk to the housing market and then profited from financial tools promoted as mitigating that risk.
In the aftermath of the predictable failure of those loans, banks and other mortgage lenders today are using this failure as an excuse to revert back to the exclusionary practices that gave rise to exploitative lending in the first place. This has included the resumption of the use of land-installment contracts, requiring “owners” to pay property taxes, make substantial repairs, and pay usurious interest rates while having no equity in the property. There has also been the revival of rent-to-own schemes that lure poor and working-class people into making expensive payments for substandard properties when they no longer qualify for mortgage loans of any type.
How could “fair housing” fail so spectacularly, forty years after it was signed into law?
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