The Foreclosed Dreams of African Americans

by Gregory N. Heires

CullorsDreamForeclosed3The housing crisis has led to the foreclosure of the homes of 10 million people–equivalent to the population of Michigan. The foreclosures have particularly devastated the African-American community, which has lost over half its wealth because of the housing and jobs crisis that followed the 2008 financial crash.

A powerful book, “A Dream Foreclosed: Black America and the Right for a Place to Call Home” by Laura Gottesdiener (Zuccotti Park Press, 2013, 208 pages), details the human wreckage of this crisis while also chronicling how the victims of predatory lending, misguided public policies, and callous profit-seeking banks are fighting back.

“A Dream Foreclosed” does a marvelous job of telling the stories of four families while weaving in the history of the struggle of American Americans to own homes in the face of housing discrimination, redlining, unscrupulous banking practices and excessive mortgage rates. Gottesdiener discusses how the families’ fight to avoid homelessness and impoverishment is part of a larger nationwide grassroots movement—largely ignored by the mainstream media—that is challenging the banks that profited from unfair and often illegal lending practices and are now profiting more by buying up foreclosed properties at rock-bottom price.

Gottesdiener, a journalist from Brooklyn who participated in the Occupy Wall Street movement, lays out the broad costs of the housing crisis:

• the destruction of $19.2 trillion in U.S. household wealth has driven millions deeper into debt and poverty, according to the U.S. Treasury Dept.

• as many as 25 percent of the African-American families who purchased homes during the predatory lending frenzy face the possibility of losing their homes, the Center for Responsible Lending estimates,

• the collapse of property values has undermined the fiscal health of municipalities like Detroit, which is marred by bankruptcy, and

• millions of Americans continue to be threatened by eviction or foreclosure despite talk of a housing recovery.

Gottesdiener convincingly argues that today’s housing crisis is only the latest chapter of racist property practices in the United States.

“Because of the deep and enduring connection between property and personhood, today’s ongoing wave of racially tilted displacement is part of a long history of denying full human citizenship rights to African Americans and other people of color,” she writes. “It’s a history, often suppressed or ignored, that began the moment Europeans set foot on North America and Africa, and continues to the present day.”

Shortly after the Civil War, the government reneged on a land redistribution plan that would have benefited former slaves. After World War II, the Federal Housing Administration lending program favored whites and the development of suburbs that excluded African Americans.

Grassroots and political pressure led to the passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968 and the Community Reinvestment Act in 1977. But the laws failed to end housing and lending discrimination. Today, homeownership for African Americans too often means debt that can’t be met.

The stories of the families poignantly show the tragic consequences of housing crisis. The families’ upended lives include dealing with bankruptcy and insensitive and unresponsive politicians, intimidation by police, scrambling to meet high interest rates, sleeping in cars, harassment by mortgage holders and bankers, giving up their children to child and family services and the shame of seeking temporary shelter from relatives.

But their success in fighting back offers hope.

Bertha Garrett, a 65-year-old grandmother of six children in Detroit, worked with housing activists to prevent New York Bank of Mellon from evicting her from her home of 22 years. Hundreds gathered to block her eviction, and she was eventually offered an affordable rate to buy the home.

Martha Biggs, a mother of four from Chicago, struggled with a decade of homelessness. The trauma of the experience led her daughter Jajuanna Walker to attempt suicide. Biggs finally managed to settle down when she and her family rehabbed a foreclosed home with the help the Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign and Take Back the Land national advocacy group.

Michael Hutchins of Chattanooga, Tenn., was involved in a successful fight to prevent the local housing authority from evicting hundreds of tenants and demolishing a public housing complex.

Griggs Wimbley fought off lenders for years after building his own home in Sanford, N.C., and trying to move forward on a plan to develop housing on 100 acres of land. Describing the impact of Wimbley’s experience on his political outlook, Gottesdiener writes, “What had first appeared to be an isolated incident of crime and deception now seemed to have enveloped the entire country. It wasn’t just that he had been a victim of corruption; it was that he was living in a corrupt society.”

In the concluding chapter, Gottesdiener notes, “No banker, lawyer, or Wall Street executive has gone to prison for the industry’s widespread illegal practices—not to mention for crashing the global economy.”

But despite that outrage, she remains hopeful.

“…the heroes of the story are the people in the middle, those like Griggs, Bertha, Michael, Martha and millions of others who refuse to have their dreams foreclosed, people who fight not only to save their own homes, but to create a more just and sustainable system for everyone,” Gottesdiener writes. “Their struggle is ours. And for the sake of all of us, it is one that we must win.”

Gregory N. Heires is senior associate editor at Public Employee Press, the official publication of District Council 37, which represents 120,000 municipal workers and 50,000 retirees in New York City.  He blogs at The New Crossroads, where this post originally appeared.

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