BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is on the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
NEWS REPORT Fears of a full-blown eviction crisis after a law banning evictions is allowed to expire.
NEWS REPORT So what happens next for a struggling renters? Well, that depends largely on where they lived.
NEWS REPORT The hardest hit region is the Southeast, with close to 30 percent of renters in Mississippi and South Carolina behind last month. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Over 6 million American families, disproportionately black and brown, are tenuously behind on rent. This crisis is happening now, but in fact, it's always been with us. Created not by a pandemic, but by deliberate policy.
MARTY WEGBREIT What do they need? Houses. Who have the money to loan to developers? Banks. Who would insure the banks? The Federal Housing Administration, and the Federal Housing Administration had one tiny little condition: don't sell to black people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's all coming up after this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. It's safe to say that Steven Soderbergh's 2011 movie Contagion reigns supreme in cinematic analogies to our current moment. But this August, we are seeing another contender arise. The 1993 film starring Bill Murray, Groundhog Day.
PHIL I'm reliving the same day...over and over. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Caught in the trap of maddening repetition, not pandemic that's recurring, perhaps, but not perpetual. No, the problem I'm talking about is housing.
NEWS REPORT Fears of a full-blown eviction crisis after a law banning evictions is allowed to expire. Are millions on the brink of losing their homes?
NEWS REPORT Nationwide, there are nearly 10 million fewer jobs than there were at the start of the pandemic. And now an estimated 6.7 million renter households currently unable to make rent.
NEWS REPORT The United States is facing the greatest immigration crisis we have ever seen in our country's history. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Actually we've been facing it for quite a while. But every time the eviction moratorium enacted to cope with one horrific byproduct of the coronavirus reaches the brink, it's like we're shocked at our own deadline. In this round, the White House and congressional Democrats pointed fingers at each other, prompting Congresswoman Cori Bush at the brink herself to lead a 5-day protest outside the Capitol, vowing to stay there until the eviction ban was reinstated.
NEWS REPORT She spent the past several nights sleeping on the Capitol steps to bring attention to the millions of renters who were in danger of losing their homes. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Her exertions seemed to have an impact – for a while.
NEWS REPORT What the CDC has put in place is a more targeted eviction moratorium than the one that you saw before. It targets those families that are living in areas of substantial and high transmission of COVID-19. And the CDC is basically making the argument that it would be detrimental to public health to have this eviction moratorium expire at this time. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE But the legally dubious dictation by the White House via the CDC is duct tape over a creaking dam that seems unlikely to hold up to the scrutiny of the current high court, thus landing us sooner rather than later back where we started. So why is it that our eviction problem and the devastation that follows in its wake, cannot seem to be fixed? Way back in the summer of 2019, we aired a four-part series that traced the roots of American eviction called the Scarlet E.. We traveled east, west, north and south in search of how things went so horribly wrong. Our partner in this enterprise was Matt Desmond, the founder of Princeton's eviction lab. Frustrated by the fallacies baked into so much of the coverage of eviction. What follows is excerpted from episodes one and two. I started by asking him to talk about what he, as one of the nation's foremost experts on eviction, knew for sure. Let's talk about what you know.
MATTHEW DESMOND That I'll just take a minute. Very, very little.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, the data that you've gathered has some inherent limitations, and that makes conclusions hard to draw. Some states didn't have or declined to share the data with you, and even though legal evictions are trackable, informal cash and key evictions are not. So, distinguished between those two and the numbers you can get in the numbers, you can't.
MATTHEW DESMOND All right. So, you know, when I was living in Milwaukee and I had spent time with landlords, they had a lot of ways to evict a family. I spent time with a landlord that would pay you to move and help you move. That's a pretty good eviction, you know, if you got to get evicted. I met a landlord that would just take your door off. Just imagine you don't have a front door living in, you know, anywhere in the country. We need front doors in our homes!
MATTHEW DESMOND That got me thinking, gosh, OK, there's all these evictions that are processed through civil court, housing court or eviction court. But there are all these evictions that no one sees in a formal evictions, we call them. So, we did a study in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and it's a big issue. For every formal eviction that goes to the court, at least in Milwaukee, there are two informal evictions that are executed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Wow.
MATTHEW DESMOND And so that's an inherent limitation in our data. Another inherent limitation is just the federal government doesn't collect numbers on evictions. If evictions are higher in Indianapolis than they are in El Paso, we have no idea. And so our little team here at Princeton started building this data set made up of these formal court ordered evictions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mhm.
MATTHEW DESMOND We got about 83 million records, hustled purchase data and work with states and worked with counties. We learned that there's eviction data stored in trailers in west Texas. You know, this is a state of our knowledge right now, but we try to cobble together and create the first ever data set of evictions in America. Now, 83 million evictions a lot, but it's not everything.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Over what period?
MATTHEW DESMOND From 2000 to now,
BROOKE GLADSTONE You told me that the rate of formal evictions seemed relatively flat.
MATTHEW DESMOND Yeah
BROOKE GLADSTONE While the cost of rent climbed a steep upward path.
MATTHEW DESMOND Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But if actual evictions are two or three times greater than that, maybe they've moved in tandem?
MATTHEW DESMOND So, I mean, we're banging our heads against this problem in the lab, and I got like – I have no answer for you. This is a mystery to us. If you look at evictions across the last 15 years, the rate is pretty darn flat. Legal formal evictions. In some cities there's movement, but you'd think if you have this drastic rise in rents and drastic rise in utility costs, you'd think that eviction line would move and it just hasn't. It's a mystery for us. You know, I think that if you're living in Portland, Oregon, this really hot housing market, and the landlord raises the rent 30 percent, 40 percent. That's not an eviction. That's not going to show up in our records, but you probably can't live there anymore. We're missing that, and I think it's really important that we figure out other ways of kind of digging into this problem, but it's still something that we like don't fully understand yet.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, one thing that we do know, we know that more than 4 rent burdened people in 10 spend more than half their paychecks on rent. Some spend 70 percent; some spend even 90 percent.
MATTHEW DESMOND Right. If you're paying 50, 60, 70 percent of your income on rent, what do you not doing? And we now know from studies that are coming out of Johns Hopkins University and other places that the losers are the kids. When you're paying 30 percent of your income on rent and housing costs, you invest in your kids, you buy them school supplies, after school activities. For me, you know, I've been studying this problem for a while. And one statistic that's just sobering is the clear finding about what families do when they finally move into public housing or receive a housing voucher that allows them to pay only 30 percent of their income instead of 60, 70, 80. And what they do with their freed up money is just take it to the grocery store and their kids get healthier and become less anemic. And so I think that one way to measure the housing crisis is through evictions, but another way has to be even if the family isn't evicted. The housing crisis is still making their lives much harder day in and day out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Well, here's something that confuses me. We know that the cost of rent has exceeded inflation for years, but why does the cost of low-income housing rise even faster than expensive apartments?
MATTHEW DESMOND Where to start with this question? So, in a lot of markets, the rent for an apartment located in the poorest neighborhood is not that different from the rent in a middle class neighborhood or even the best neighborhood in the city.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What do you mean not that different?
MATTHEW DESMOND For example, in Milwaukee, a two-bedroom apartment in a very poor neighborhood, I'm talking for like 40 percent poverty or higher, the median rent for that place is about 600 dollars right now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mmhmm.
MATTHEW DESMOND If you go to a middle-class neighborhood of Milwaukee, the median rent for a two bedroom apartment is about 650 dollars. Fifty dollars more. And you get massively more safety, a lot less poverty, a lot better housing conditions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Why is that?
MATTHEW DESMOND Yeah, why is that, right? That's a huge question. One of the things we think is going on is landlords in low income communities face higher risks. They are dealing with an older housing stock. They have a higher risk of nonpayment. They have to confront the realities of poverty. Sometimes poverty can be violent. Sometimes poverty can mean drug addiction. They don't know, though, if you're going to be the risky tenant or if I'm going to be the risky tenant. So, they might price up all their apartments to hedge for risk.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mmhmm.
MATTHEW DESMOND But because that risk is still absolutely rare, it's more common, but it's still absolutely rare. Most of that risk charge just assumed is higher profits by landlords in poor neighborhoods.
BROOKE GLADSTONE How much higher profits?
MATTHEW DESMOND We've been studying this through a nationally representative survey of landlords that the census does. And what we found is that you can take a property that's in a affluent neighborhood like eight percent or less poverty, and you can take a property that's in a poor neighborhood and 27 percent of poverty or more, vastly different kinds of neighborhoods. And you can subtract expenses from the rent, subtract everything you could think of, you know, roofing, job, plumbing, job nonpayment vacancies and the apartment in the poor neighborhood. After all expenses, still yields about double the profit to the apartment in an affluent neighborhood. Nationwide.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Wow. Well, then why don't those poor people move to the better neighborhood?
MATTHEW DESMOND Well, you know, I spent a lot of time following around families after they get evicted and watching where they go.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mmhmm.
MATTHEW DESMOND You know, it's interesting. They don't start looking for housing and the worst neighborhoods. They don't they're the most disadvantaged renters in the city. They got a fresh eviction smacked on their record. And they don't start looking for housing in the worst neighborhoods. They start in integrated neighborhoods on the edges of the inner city, for example, if if they're from the inner city, or they'll start in slightly nicer mobile home parks if they got evicted from mobile home park and then they get a bunch of rejections. They get no after, no after no. And I remember spending time with a woman that I call Arlene in my book. After one eviction, she applied to 89 apartments, you know, before one person said yes. And by that time, you just take whatever you can get. And so a lot of folks are excluded from better off places, not on account of their income exclusively, but on account of their credit, on account of their eviction history or their conviction history. They might have done some time behind bars and an account of their race. And so, you know, it's not that poor, especially poor people of color. It's not that they're living in the worst neighborhoods because they're the only places they can afford it because they're allowed to live there. And you know what's weird? It's always been this way. You know, if you go back and you read like Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives, right?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yeah.
MATTHEW DESMOND New York City, it's 1890's. The rent in the tenements is actually higher than better apartments uptown. You see this again and again and again. Tom Sugrue, historian at New York University, has this book about Detroit, and he shows that as late as 1960, rents in black neighborhoods were higher than rents for better apartments in white neighborhoods in Detroit. Era after era, this kind of pattern repeats itself and then we're confronted with it again, and then we puzzle over it like it's a new thing. It's not a new thing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE When we first talked about this, you said that you could superimpose a map of the Great Migration over a map of the highest eviction areas today, and the contours would almost exactly match.
MATTHEW DESMOND I mean, that is chilling for me. Just chilling. When we first got these national data and we mapped it on the United States, I don't really know what I was expecting, but I spent a lot of time in Milwaukee. I thought evictions were incredibly high there. One in 14 renter homes in the inner city, Milwaukee, is evicted every year, formerly. Huge amount. You walk down any inner-city block, look on your left, look on your right. One of those families is not going to be there by the end of the year in Milwaukee isn't even in the top 50 highest affecting cities in the country. You see South Carolina exploding, North Carolina exploding, Georgia up the Mississippi to Detroit. Tulsa, Oklahoma, is in the top 20. Albuquerque, New Mexico, I think one in 21, renter homes is evicted.
BROOKE GLADSTONE These are in hot markets.
MATTHEW DESMOND These aren't home markets, right. Who in God's name is talking about Albuquerque and Tulsa when we're talking about the housing crisis? The main finding is this old American story, the systematic dispossession of poor people of color for the land. It's really interesting. You know, if you rented a home on the north side of Milwaukee, your rent would be 700 dollars. If you bought that home in a conventional mortgage, your mortgage payment would be about seventy dollars. You know, there's this idea of like, wait, you know, could we expand homeownership to low income families, could they afford it? And it's like – compared to what?
MATTHEW DESMOND You know, I was talking to a nonprofit organization the other day and they wanted to invest in Baltimore. Do you think we can invest in homeownership opportunities for low income families in Baltimore as a wealth builder? And I said as a wealth builder, I don't know. But as an approach, the affordable housing crisis, absolutely. You know, that house might not be worth a lot more than it is now in 30 years if you're talking about investing in the most distressed communities. But to stabilize those communities, to say this is your house, you're going to pay a lot less for it, but it'll be worth a lot more to you. It's not the only solution, but I think it should be on the table.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Ultimately, any stable neighborhood gets gentrified,
MATTHEW DESMOND You say any stable neighborhood will be gentrified?
BROOKE GLADSTONE I think so.
MATTHEW DESMOND Do you live in Brooklyn?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Yeah!
MATTHEW DESMOND That's what happened, but Brooklyn's the weird thing –
BROOKE GLADSTONE Is it?
MATTHEW DESMOND – Brooklyn's the weird thing. Gentrification, by which we mean Harlem, U Street corridor, the Mission District in San Francisco is gentrifying. It affects the cities that most of our reporters and academics live in, you know, and so we focus on it a lot, but a lot of cities around the country, gentrification is not a concern. And most evictions are not occurring in gentrifying neighborhoods. You know, they're incurring in poor segregated neighborhoods where even their folks can't afford a roof over their head. So if we care about displacement and instability and school mobility, gentrification isn't top order
BROOKE GLADSTONE Touché, you have just shown me what has frustrated you about so much of the coverage of this issue, which is that it's done by people like me. Who live in urban areas whose problems are specific to those zones.
MATTHEW DESMOND No, that's right. That's exactly right. I was listening to a podcast the other day, smart folks, and they're in D.C. and they're talking about the housing crisis and they couldn't help themselves, but just kind of keep referencing D.C. as their lodestar. I love D.C. I think it's a really important city, too, but D.C., New York, San Francisco, they are not like Tulsa and Albuquerque in Richmond, Virginia. Although those three cities have much higher eviction rates. And so I think we need a language like of humility about the housing crisis, a little bit. Like we kind of recognize that the health market is complicated, it's tricky to get your hands around, and I think we need that kind of reverence for the housing market that it's tricky. And it's not just about neoclassical economics. And if we live in a place like Chicago or San Francisco or in L.A., we might think about going to Indianapolis once in a while.
BROOKE GLADSTONE What does eviction mean? What does home mean?
MATTHEW DESMOND I was talking with my 9-year-old the other day. He just had something cool happen. You know, he had a victory happen in his life. And I said, hey, did you tell your friends at school about it? And he said, no, I didn't. And I said, why not? And he said, well, you know, at school you kind of have to act. And at home you kind of like you're yourself. You know, I think that's what home is. Where we're our true selves, where we let down, where we relax. And the absence of that, where home is something that is a complete burden, is a monkey on our back in the form of rent we can barely afford, where you're spending most of your income to rent a place that has roaches or plumbing doesn't work or the door falls down. I think that has that effect on us. That makes us feel small and not ourselves, not our full, beautiful selves. Home for me is the wellspring of a lot of social problems, and it's the promise. It's is where we've rooted the American dream, and I think like that went awry down the road, but the impulse behind that was not wrong.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Some psychologists believe that place identity forms the basis of self identity, that home, wherever, whatever it is, establishes, interrogates, confirms and ultimately shapes our view of who we are. So home is under your roof and on your street, but it's also in your head with the ultimate power to sustain or to scar you, but you knew that. Like, I love my home, we've lived here 24 years, raise the kids here, plan to die here, but when a hard rain bounces off the roof and rattles the windows, that's when I feel a gut level gratitude. There's a Victorian expression: safe as houses, which back then meant certain beyond a doubt. Would that were so. Evictions are pouring through America's roof like rain down a subway grate, leaving our house lousy with mold.
MARSHALL Hello, sheriff's department. Eviction, come to the door.
MARSHALL No, no don't open the door. You gotta let us in first.
MARSHALL Put the dog out, open the door. [DOG BARKS AND HOWLS]
EVICTEE And it's ridiculous. I don't have nowhere to go. No, nothing in.
MARSHALL You get dressed like you're going out for the day. You want to walk around.
EVICTEE Like I explain to them that my husband just passed everything when I told him that.
LANDLORD I want them off my property now. You're not going to be in my house ever again.
MARSHALL You go back in there without his permission, he's going to call Southland PD and you're going to get arrested for trespassing. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Eviction isn't just a plague, it's a prism that reflects and reveals who we are. Oh, it's plague, too, but we can treat it. It most certainly is treatable. Just because it's always been with us, doesn't mean it has to be. Coming up, the Great Migration and a brief history of redlining. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone. Some say that eviction is just a grim but inevitable byproduct of natural market forces. Move along people, nothing to see here, but the data tell a different tale. One of a plague that could have been contained had it not been purposefully designed to diminish the wealth and power of specific populations: black and brown ones.
MATTHEW DESMOND When we first created this map, this is not what I thought it would look like.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Matthew Desmond, founder of the eviction lab at Princeton, pulls up on his cell phone. A U.S. map charting our eviction hotspots. The places hardest hit are not the ones most covered.
MATTHEW DESMOND These counties are shaded here, and the darker shading means higher proportion of African Americans in the county.
BROOKE GLADSTONE It's blue.
MATTHEW DESMOND Right?
BROOKE GLADSTONE Mmhmm.
MATTHEW DESMOND And so if you just follow the blue, when you go through Alabama and Georgia and up to South Carolina and North Carolina, you see incredibly, stunningly high eviction rates to Virginia. These are pretty low-cost areas that have these exploding addiction rates. And then you go up the Mississippi and you can keep going into Detroit as if the eviction problem follows. Like the trail of the Great Migration. Black families search for economic security and ran away from racial terrorism to go into north cities, to be crowded into ghettos where they didn't own the land again. And so, it's an old story, but it's kind of like our story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE The Great Northern Migration is a major way station on the road to today's eviction crisis and the interrelated racial wealth gap. The net worth of the typical black household is just 15 percent of the typical white one. And the gap is growing. But the path to the present moment begins even earlier. When European colonists built the nation's wealth on stolen land with stolen labor and then fought over the continuance of slavery to sustain it. In fact, you could argue that the emancipation induced a kind of mass eviction for African Americans and it was into a most peculiar kind of freedom.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR In 1863, the Negro was freed from the bondage of physical slavery, but at the same time, the nation refused to give him land to make that freedom meaningful. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE As Martin Luther King often noted, the nation was keen to provide millions of acres out west to whites from Europe as a foundation on which to build their lives, but to the former slave, it offered not a patch, not a stick.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR Frederick Douglass could say that emancipation for the Negro was freedom to hunger. Freedom to the winds and rains of heaven, freedom without roofs to cover their heads. Freedom without bread to eat, freedom without land to cultivate it. It was freedom and famine at the same time. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Beginnings can determine endings. The rate of white homeownership is almost 73 percent, but black homeownership languishes at about 43 percent. And that can be a deep disadvantage because if you don't own property, you can't transfer it to your kids. Only 13 percent of kids from college educated black families get an inheritance of more than 10000 dollars, as opposed to 41 percent of their white counterparts. Actually, white families average a lot more than that, but 10000 was deemed a transformative sum. One that could change the course of a life. So, those who aren't bequeathed property deserve at least the chance to buy it wherever it is sold. For African Americans, it took another century plus 5 years for that right. Even then, the exclusionary policies of many banks and brokers and our laws ensured that only a few African Americans would get a toehold in the housing market before prices zoomed into the stratosphere. Which is why many argue that the wealth gap now is too large to seriously address without moving decisively to correct and own injustice.
["Forty Acres and A Mule" plays by Oscar Brown Jr.]
OSCAR BROWN JR If I'm not mistaken, I once read back during that short spell I spent in school where every slave said free was supposed to get, for "slavin" – 40 acres and a mule".
[MUSIC CONTINUES UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE In 1865, as the civil war wound down, President Lincoln ordered General William T. Sherman to come to terms with America's newly emancipated citizens. So he and the secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, gathered a group of black ministers to ask what they wanted. Garrison Frazier, a Baptist minister who purchased his own freedom some years before, spoke for them all. Land, he said. To have it, turn it till it, would sustain them and even leave them something to spare. Sherman then issued an order allotting the newly emancipated, a 30 mile track held by former slaveholders from South Carolina to Florida, divided into 40 acre blocks. And then he promised the Army's help in supplying mules. Tens of thousands of free people settled in, then were driven out because President Andrew Johnson overturned the order.
OSCAR BROWN JR We had a promise that was taken back. And when we hollered it was "hush, be cool." Well, me, I’m being rowdy, hot and black, I want my 40 acres and my mule.
[MUSIC CONTINUES UNDER AND FADES]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thus was that promised parcel in the American South, recompense for centuries of barbarism, clawed back. Even as slaveholders were compensated for the loss of their slaves. It took the agonies following reconstruction. The trampling of basic freedoms, the unbridled exploitation, the gleefully executed lynchings, to spur the historic exodus of the incompletely emancipated North.
[Henry Thomas' "Railroadin Some" Plays]
ISABEL WILKERSON 6 million African Americans departed the caste system of the Jim Crow South from the time of World War One until the 1970s.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Isabel Wilkerson is the author of The Warmth of Other Suns The Epic Story of America's Great Migration.
ISABEL WILKERSON The only group of Americans who's had to actually leave the land of their birth for another part of their own country, just to be recognized as a citizens to which they have been born. And it changed every single city in the North and Midwest. It changed our culture, it changed the music that we listened to. It changed literature. It changed politics.
BROOKE GLADSTONE When the Great Migration began, 90 percent of African Americans lived in the South. When it was over, more than half were living elsewhere. In 1916, the Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper, beckoned their, quote, Southern brothers to come north, quote, better a thousand times to run chances of being nipped by the fingers of Jack Frost than to shake off this mortal coil at the end of a lynchers rope. The white perspective was displayed in a 1918 headline in the Chicago Tribune, quote, Fearing Negro Invasion, Crowd Attacks House. That chilly reception warmed only slightly by the need for cheap labor in the slaughterhouses and elsewhere, underwent a hard freeze when the Depression blasted in. After the crash, black unemployment doubled or tripled that of whites as the latter moved in to take the grueling jobs they previously shunned. In 1936. African Americans finally deserted the party of Lincoln and voted for FDR. But though the New Deal appointed many African American advisers, its programs were managed on the local level, where racism thrived. FDR couldn't afford to lose Southern Democrats, so his administration overlooked the Jim Crow laws and the monstrousness of lynching, but it was worse than that. Southern congressmen demanded that agricultural and domestic workers – guess who held most of those jobs? – be barred from the shiny new programs like Social Security and the minimum wage. Black veterans were denied the educational benefits and low-cost loans whites enjoyed under the GI Bill. And these, in many ways, blacks were denied the helping hand extended freely to whites in pursuit of the American dream.
NEWSREEL Homeownership is the basis of a happy, contented family life, and now, to the use of a National Housing Act insured mortgage, is brought within the reach of all citizens on a monthly payment plan no greater than rent.
FDR Might be one third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished [END CLIP]
MARTY WEGBREIT What did they need? Houses. Who had the money to loan to developers? Banks. Who would insure the banks? The Federal Housing Administration, and the Federal Housing Administration had one tiny little condition: don't sell to black people.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Marty Wegbreit is the director of litigation for the Central Virginia Legal Aid Society.
MARTY WEGBREIT It wasn't just the South, it wasn't just the Northeast. It was Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Dallas, Atlanta, Miami, every place across the entire country. That's how the country got segregated. Moreover, what the government was doing as a policy was perfectly legal. And if you were denied rental, if you were denied home purchase until 1968, there was nothing you could do. Now, 51 years ago, that got changed. But by then, the pattern had set in. Homeownership for white people, rental for black people, and we're still living with that legacy today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Thus, generation after generation were corralled into areas outlined on maps in red, legally designated as risky. These areas, disinvested in and underserved, were snapped up by speculators and then rented at above market rate to citizens fleeing the horrors of Jim Crow. It didn't really matter how much you earned. If you could have qualified for an FHA loan. If you were black, you wouldn't. With your options limited, your home, most likely would be located within the red lines. A fitting color for a place engineered to bleed you dry. So there's no denying that when the nation was born, its wealth was derived in large part from theft. That's the easy part, now is the hard part and where the denial of fair access to land, to housing continues north, south, east and west. For half a million people on the Great Migration, Chicago was the last stop. So next, we go to Chicago. This is On the Media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE This is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone, and in this part of the hour, I'm in the second city, the windy one, the one that works with Big Shoulders, Chi-town, Chiraq: Chicago.
NEWS REPORT Chicagoans claim their skyline is one of the most beautiful in the world. Etched against the impressive clearness of Lake Michigan. Perhaps this is the scene that most catches the visitor's eye when it comes to the city for the first time. A picture of wealth and serenity. [END CLIP]
NATALIE MOORE Right, I call it Jim Crow in the north.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Chicago is the nation's 13th most segregated metro area. As the sun sets, we drive through the nation's number one eviction zip code, The South Shore, with Natalie Moore. She's a reporter for WBEZ Radio and author of The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation. With Natalie at the wheel, we see a place of infinite variety. True, some of it doesn't look too good.
NATALIE MOORE If you look here, this used to be a grocery store. Dominick's, was a chain that went out of business and it was hard to get a new tenant for that space. There was a police shooting. The police killed somebody here on 71st and there was a protest.
BROOKE GLADSTONE But some of the south shore looks grand. Many of the houses we pass are gorgeous, a mix of styles dating back a century to the present in a harmonious flow. But here, fancier houses do not mean fancier retail. Again, it doesn't matter how much you earn if people don't want to serve you.
NATALIE MOORE That's the thing about black neighborhoods in Chicago. This is a racial issue because you can have six figure households that still are asking for some of the same amenities, like a grocery store.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Out of the car, Natalie observes that the fanciest streets have the fewest outlets, the least access. Gated without the actual gates. She says this and other parts of the south shore close to the lake and public transportation should be worth more, but this is a black area, so retailers, realtors, banks and brokers have decided its value is less than what a similarly situated white one would be, and segregated its residents in the sense that matters most, not necessarily from white people, but from the privilege that empowers them to demand what they deserve.
NATALIE MOORE Segregation isn't about what I need a white neighbor as a black person to be better. Segregation is about resources and access. Removing barriers to access, people can live where they want to live, but this idea of choice can be complicated because you chose to live here, but what helped you? Did you get a down payment from your family? How did the bank view you? There are a lot of elements that go into someone's choice.
[TURNING SIGNAL TICKS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Tell me about your grandparents.
NATALIE MOORE My mother's parents are from Georgia, they were part of the second wave of the Great Migration. They came after World War Two and they moved to West Woodlawn neighborhood. That's the neighborhood that Lorraine Hansberry's father, tried to buy a house and the white people got mad. Lorraine Hansberry's mother had to patrol the house at night with a gun,
BROOKE GLADSTONE And in the end they threw a little molotov cocktails in,.
NATALIE MOORE Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE And set fire to the place. As a young man, Carl Hansbury, Lorraine's father, moved up to Chicago from Mississippi, became a real estate broker and an activist, and in 1937 bought a house in whites only West Woodlawn. Mobs attacked his home and his neighbors took him to court. Later, that ordeal inspired his daughter's classic play, A Raisin in the Sun.
LINDNER Do you really feel?
WALTER No, no. Don't worry about how I feel. Come on, get out of my house.
LINDNER All right, what do you people think you have to gain by moving into a neighborhood where you're not wanted? You know, people get awful worked up when they feel their whole way of life, everything they've worked for is threatened.
WALTER Get out. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE Hansbury actually won his case on a technicality. Later, of course, his angry neighbors could not have sued.
NEWS REPORT The Civil Rights Act of 1968. Included in the measure was a landmark open housing bill, which, when fully effective, without discrimination in approximately 80 percent of all housing offered for rent or for sale in the United States.
MALE CORRESPONDENT It proclaims that fair housing for all, all human beings who live in this country. Is now a part of the American way of life, [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE The Fair Housing Act, also known as the Civil Rights Act of 1968, passed only after the riots caused by the murder of Martin Luther King. I'm running through history here to show that these aren't settled matters. Today, black and brown people are still denied equal protection under the law. They're still denied access to services, even to the interest rates extended to whites. They're still excluded and still preyed upon with near impunity. But for now, let's stay in the 60s.
NEWS REPORT There are blacks like this scattered throughout the Lawndale section of Chicago's West Side ghetto. The people who live here baught their homes from real estate speculators that double or triple their value. And they bought on contract because they couldn't get conventional or FHA mortgages. Under the contract, the buyer makes installment payments at high interest, but he builds no equity. If he defaults on even one payment at any time during the contract, he loses the property and everything he's paid into it. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE With these contracts common enough in some cities from the 1930s through the 60s, weren't mortgages, they were layaway plans carefully crafted to fail. The buyers paid taxes on dwellings they didn't own, and they paid inflated prices to repair damage previously concealed from them. They paid and paid. Once squeezed dry, the tenants were evicted, and the contract sold to another black family seeking a toehold in the American dream. The reason for the decline of so many black urban neighborhoods into slums, historian Beryl Satter observed in her book Family Properties, wasn't because they lacked resources, but because they held riches that could be drawn from the hard pressed but hard working and ambitious African-Americans who lived there. The problem, she wrote, was that the pickings were too easy and the scale of the profits too tempting for many of the city's prominent citizens, attorneys, bankers, realtors and politicians alike to pass up. Back in 1961, Clyde Ross, a Mississippi refugee, signed a 27000 dollar contract on a Lawndale home that speculators had purchased weeks earlier for 12000 dollars. To make the payments, he worked three jobs from six a.m. to 10 p.m. He hardly knew his kids anymore. And still, he lost ground. Just as his parents down south had been robbed of the land they'd owned for generations. Ross saw at the hamster wheel he and his neighbors had set themselves on for a better future, would only deliver destitution and defeat.
CLYDE ROSS These people who have cheated us out of more than money. We have been cheated out of the right to be human beings in a society. We have been cheated out of buying homes at a decent price. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE In 1968, Ross became cochairman of the Contract Buyers League.
NEWS REPORT The people of Lawndale organized a Contract Buyers League during the past year. The league began urging large numbers of buyers to withhold the payments on their contract.
LANDLORD So you have to look at the other side too. These people have something to buy? They bought it. I mean, the investors and now they have something to sell and they sold it. You're going to say because they made what is termed here excess profits.
MALE CORRESPONDENT Immoral.
LANDLORD Immoral? I don't know if it is. And I talked to the student here was saying they made fantastic profits. And I said, what is a fantastic profit?
MALE CORRESPONDENT But it seems pretty clear that the house you sold for twenty five thousand dollars, which is valued by the FHA of 15000, that this is excess profit, right.
LANDLORD Possibly, yes. I won't say definitely, but possibly it would appear that way, but not necessarily so. But there are many businesses that do make 50 or 100 percent profits. Not many, not many, but there are some, and the greater the risk they're entitled to. [END CLIP].
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR Many of the people who supported us in Selma and Birmingham were really outraged about the extremist behavior toward Negroes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Dr. Martin Luther King
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR But they were not at that moment and they are not now committed to genuine equality for Negroes. It's much easier to integrate a lunch counter than it is to guarantee an annual income, for instance, to get rid of poverty for Negroes and all poor people. It's much easier to integrate a bus than it is to make genuine integration a reality and quality education a reality in our schools. It's much easier to integrate even a public park than it is to get rid of slums, and I think we are in a new era, a new phase of the struggle where we have moved from a struggle for decency, which characterized our struggle for 10 or 12 years to a struggle for genuine equality. And this is where we are getting the resistance because there was never any intention to go this far. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE After the passage of the Fair Housing Act, African-Americans now could on paper buy homes whenever they chose. But having missed the chance to stake a claim in the bargain rich housing market of the postwar years, they faced dizzying prices. And then in the early 2000s came contract buying 2.0. Behemoths like Wells Fargo and Countrywide Financial, later bought by Bank of America, specifically targeted communities of color with shady subprime mortgages and deceptive predatory loans. The financial meltdown ignited by the scam, is predicted to widen the wealth gap between black and white for at least another generation. Meanwhile, the investigative podcast Reveal, reported last year that redlining still flourishes, still pushes people of color toward higher interest mortgage loans than those offered to whites, even when they earn the same. Meanwhile, contract selling has made a comeback in Detroit, Akron, Battle Creek and Chicago. But this time the companies doing the selling are Wall Street veterans handling thousands of properties. Two years ago, the Chicago Reader fingered 3 out-of-state companies doing business there, charging soaring interest rates and prices that far exceed, in some cases, the home's estimated value. And meanwhile, the new head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau seeks rule changes that would allow lending institutions to withhold the kind of data that Reveal used in its investigations and says that the bureau's priorities now would shift to modernizing debt collection and educating consumers rather than pursuing wrongdoers. Right. Who needs consumer protection anymore?
JAMES BALDWIN The truth is that no one pays his dues willingly.
BROOKE GLADSTONE James Baldwin.
JAMES BALDWIN The bill has come in. It is not coming in. It is in. The very question now is precisely what we've got in the bank. This will cost us everything we think we have. Everything. What is really crucial is whether or not the country, the people in the country, the citizenry, are able to recognize that there is no moral distance, no moral distance, which is to say no distance between the facts of life in San Francisco and the facts of life in Birmingham. [END CLIP]
BROOKE GLADSTONE As fewer and fewer people control more of America's wealth, increasingly we are a nation of renters, more than at any point in the last 50 years. And though eviction is not solely a black plague, neither is it a byproduct of natural market forces because market forces were never natural. Successive local, state and federal governments built the current crisis, decade by decade, brick by brick. By enclosing the disfavored, the black and the brown, by extracting their wealth, by intimidation, by unequal justice. Eviction is an object lesson in how inequality will always spread beyond the walls to contain it. Ultimately it engulfs everyone.
[Oscar Brown Jr's "Forty Acres and a Mule" plays]
BROOKE GLADSTONE That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Leah Feder, Micah Loewinger, Eloise Blondiau, Rebecca Clark-Callender and Molly Schwartz. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson, our engineers this week were Sam Bair and Josh Hahn. Eve Claxton and Kathryn Simon produced the eviction series. Mark Henry Phillips composed and performed the original score. You can find all four episodes on our website, at onthemedia.org. Just look for the Scarlet E! Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On The Media, is a production of WNYC Studios. I'm Brooke Gladstone.