Brooke Gladstone: From WNYC in New York this is On the Media, I'm Brooke Gladstone.
Speaker 2: Renters in Indiana have until the end of the month before landlords can once again start evictions.
Speaker 3: Eviction freezes put in place across the country to blunt the pain of the virus are set to expire on various states before the end of the summer.
Speaker 4: We are just five days away from the expiration of the executive order suspending both evictions and foreclosures.
Brooke Gladstone: Roughly a fifth of renters, disproportionately black and brown, may lose their homes by summer's end. This crisis is happening now, but in fact it has always been with us, created not by 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.
Announcer: Listener-supported, WNYC Studios.
Brooke Gladstone: From WNYC in New York this is On the Media. Bob Garfield is off this week, I'm Brooke Gladstone. The Heroes Act passed last month by the house, endorsed by housing advocates and property owners alike gathers dust on Mitch McConnell's desk like a papyrus from the ancient land of Punt.
Legend has it that Punt was a wonderful place, but I can't help crudely playing on its name because by punting on the $3 trillion stimulus plan McConnell shrugs off a raft of data pointing to a fifth of American renters losing their homes by September. The fact is America already was facing its worst housing crisis in modern times.
Matthew Desmond, the founder of Princeton's Eviction Lab, found that in 2016 four evictions were filed every minute, that's roughly 6,400 Americans evicted every single day. Compare that to, as I write this in late June, some 400 daily deaths from COVID 19. It's hard to take in, for those of us who don't have to, that tens of millions are on an edge so thin they could lose their homes, their communities, their stuff, for want of a few hundred bucks. Desmond's fieldwork suggests that eviction is not how a life unraveling ends, it's where it begins.
Now, eviction freezes put in place at the federal state and local level as a result of the virus are set to expire on various dates before the end of the summer, evictions are already underway in Colorado, North Carolina, Louisiana, for many in New York, the list is long.
Announcer 1: We are just five days away from the expiration of Governor Ron DeSantis's executive order suspending both evictions and foreclosures until June 2nd.
Announcer 2: Renters in Indiana have until the end of the month before landlords can once again start evictions.
Announcer 3: Here at the Milwaukee County Courthouse it was a day that both tenants and landlords were counting down to, as the governor's moratorium on eviction notices came to an end.
Brooke Gladstone: 100 years ago, by at which I mean last summer, we aired a four part series that traced the roots of American eviction called The Scarlet E. We traveled throughout the country to figure out how things went so wrong. Our partner in the center prize was the aforementioned Matt Desmond, who was frustrated by the fallacies baked into so much of the coverage of the issue. What follows is excerpted from episodes one and two. Let's talk about what you know.
Matthew Desmond: It will just take a minute, I know 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 decline to share the data with you, and even though legal evictions are trackable, informal, cash and key evictions are not, so distinguish between those two, and the numbers you can get, and the numbers you can't.
Matthew Desmond: All right. So, 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 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, you're living anywhere in the country, it's just like we need front doors at our homes.
That got me thinking, "Gosh! Okay, 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." Informal evictions we call them, so we did a study in Milwaukee Wisconsin and it's a big issue, for every formal eviction that goes through 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.
We got about 83 million records, hustled, purchase data, I worked with states, I worked with counties, we learned that there's eviction data stored in trailers in West Texas, this is the state of our knowledge right now, but we tried to cobble them together and create the first-ever data set of evictions in America. Now, 83 million evictions is 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, 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 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 cost, you'd think that eviction line would move, and it just hasn't. It's a mystery for us.
I think that if you're living in Portland Oregon it's really hot housing market, and the landlord raises the rent 30%, 40%, that's not an eviction, that's not going to show up in our records when 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 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%, some spend even 90%.
Matthew Desmond: Right. If you're paying 50, 60, 70% of your income on rent what are 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% of your income on rent and housing cost, you invest in your kids, you buy them school supplies, after-school activities, for me 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% 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 they become less anemic.
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 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 on middle-class neighborhood, or even the best neighborhoods 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 poor, like 40% poverty or higher, the median rent for that place is about $600 right now, if you go to a middle-class neighborhood in Milwaukee the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment is about $650, 50 others 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're dealing with a older housing stock, they have a higher risk of non-payment, 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, but because that risk is still absolutely rare, it's more common but it's still absolutely rare, most of that risk charge is just assumed as 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 8% or less poverty, and you can take a property that's in a poor neighborhood, in 27% of poverty or more, vastly different kinds of neighborhoods, and you can subtract expenses from the rent, subtract everything you could think of, roofing job, plumbing job, non-payment, and vacancies, and the apartment in the poor neighborhood after all expenses still yields about double the profit than the apartment in a affluent neighborhood, nationwide.
Brooke Gladstone: Wow! Well, then why don't those poor people move to the better neighborhood?
Matthew Desmond: I've spent a lot of time following around families after they get evicted, and watching where they go. It's interesting, they don't start looking for housing in the worst neighborhoods.
Brooke Gladstone: They don't.
Matthew Desmond: 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 they're from the inner city, or they'll start in slightly nicer mobile home parks if they got evicted from a mobile home park, and then they get a bunch of rejections, they get no, after no, after no.
I remember spending time with a woman that I call Arlene in my book, after one eviction she applied to 89 apartments before one person said yes, and by that time you just take whatever you can get, and so a lot of folks that 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 on account of their race.
So, 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 place that they can afford, it's because they're allowed to live there, and you know what's weird? It's always been this way. If you go back and you read Jacob Riis, How The Other Half Lives, right?
Brooke Gladstone: Yeah.
Matthew Desmond: It's New York City, it's 1890s, 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, then we puzzle over 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 think that was 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've spent a lot of time in Milwaukee, I thought evictions were incredibly high there. 1 in 14 renter homes in the inner city of Milwaukee is evicted every year formerly, right?
Brooke Gladstone: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Matthew Desmond: 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, and Milwaukee isn't even in the top 50 highest evicting 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 1 in 21 renter homes is evicted.
Brooke Gladstone: These are in hot markets?
Matthew Desmond: These are in hot 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 from the land. It's really interesting, if you rented a home on the north side of Milwaukee your rent would be $700, if you bought that home and a conventional mortgage, your mortgage payment would be about $70.
There's this idea of, "Wait, could we expand home ownership to low-income families? Could they afford it?" It's like, "Compared to what?" I was talking to a nonprofit organization the other day, and they wanted to invest in Baltimore, "Do you think we can invest in home ownership 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 to affordable housing crisis, absolutely."
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: Did you say any stable neighborhood would 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 is 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, 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. 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 is a top order.
Brooke Gladstone: Touche! 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 ...
Matthew Desmond: Right.
Brooke Gladstone: ... 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 DC, and they're talking about the housing crisis, and they couldn't help themselves but just kind of keep referencing DC as their lodestar. I love DC, I think it's a really important city too, but DC, New York, San Francisco, they are not like Tulsa and Albuquerque in Richmond Virginia, although those three cities have much higher eviction rates.
So, I think we need a language, like a humility about the health in crisis a little bit, we kind of recognize that the health market is complicated, it's tricky to get your hands around it, 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 LA, we might think about going to Indianapolis once in a while.
Brooke Gladstone: What does eviction mean? What does home mean?
I was talking with my nine-year-old the other day, he just had something cool happen, 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, at school you kind of have to act, and at home you're yourself." 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, there's 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 an effect on us that makes us feel small and not ourselves, not our full beautiful selves. Home for me is a wellspring of a lot of social problems, and it's the promise, it's where we've rooted the American Dream, and I think like that when I ride down the road, but the impulse behind that was not wrong.
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. I love my home, we've lived here 24 years, raised 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 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.
Female Police Officer: Hello, Sheriff's Department Eviction, come to the door.
Male Police Officer 1: No, no, open the door, you got to let us in through it.
Male Police Officer 2: Put the dog up, open the door.
Male Police Officer 3: God damn it.
Tenant 1: And this is ridiculous, I don't have nowhere to go, no nothing in this alley.
Tenant 2: You dressed like you're going out for the day, you want to walk around.
Tenant 3: Like I explained to them that my husband just passed and everything, when I told them that ...
Landlord 1: I want them off my property now, you're not going to be in my house ever again.
Landlord 2: If you go back in there without his permission, he's going to call South Holland PD, and you're going to get arrested for trespassing.
Brooke Gladstone: Eviction isn't just a plague, it's a prism that reflects and reveals who we are, oh it's a 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: Mathew Desmond, founder of The Eviction Lab at Princeton pulls up on his cellphone a US map charting our eviction hot spots, 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 to the county.
Brooke Gladstone: It's blue.
Matthew Desmond: Right. So, if you just follow the blue when you go through Alabama, and Georgia, and up to South Carolina, North Carolina, you see incredibly stunningly high eviction rates to Virginia. These are pretty low cost areas that have these exploding eviction rates, and then you go up to Mississippi and you can keep going into Detroit as if the eviction problem follows like the trail of the Great Migration, black families searched for economic security and ran away from racial terrorism to go into north cities to be corralled into ghettos where they didn't own the land again. 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% 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.
Dr. 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.
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.
Dr. 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 roost to cover their heads, freedom without bread to eat, freedom without land to cultivate, it was freedom and famine at the same time.
Brooke Gladstone: Beginnings can determine endings, the rate of white home ownership is almost 73%, but black home ownership languishes at about 43% and that can be a deep disadvantage, because if you don't own property you can't transfer it to your kids. Only 13% of kids from college-educated black families get an inheritance of more than $10,000 as opposed to 41% of their white counterparts. Actually white families average a lot more than that, but 10,000 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 five 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 an old injustice.
Speaker: If I am not mistaken, I once read back during that short spell I spent in school, where every slave set free was supposed to get, for slaving, 40 acres and a mule.
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 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 plots, 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.
Speaker: We had a promise that was taken back, and when we hollered it was, "Hey, just be cool." Well, me I'm being rowdy, hot, and black, I want my 40 acres and my mule.
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.
Old Time Singer: (singing) Hello Springfield, I’m on way Chicago.
Isabel Wilkerson: Six 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 the citizens to which they have been born. And it changed every single city in the north, the Midwest, and west, it changed our culture, it changed the music that we listen to, it changed literature, it changed politics.
Brooke Gladstone: When the great migration began, 90% of African-Americans lived in the south, when it was over more than half were living elsewhere.
Old Time Singer: (singing) Chicago!
Brooke Gladstone: In 1916, The Chicago Defender, an African-American newspaper, beckoned their "Southern brothers to come north" better 1,000 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 lyncher's rope. The white perspective was displayed in a 1918 headline in The Chicago Tribune, "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'd 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 its administration overlooked the Jim Crow Laws, and the monstrousness of lynching, but it was worse than that. Southern congressman 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. In these and many ways, blacks were denied the helping hand extended freely to whites in pursuit of the American Dream.
Midcentury Newsreel Announcer: Home ownership is the basis of a happy, contented, family life, and now through 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.
Dr. Martin Luther King: I see one one-third of a nation ill-powered, ill-planned, ill-nourished.
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. Home ownership 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.
Documentary Announcer: 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 he comes to the city for the first time, a picture of wealth and serenity.
Brooke Gladstone: Right, I call it Jim Crow in the north. 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, "Oh, 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 yeah 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.
Brooke Gladstone: Tell me about your grandparents.
Natalie Moore: So my mother's parents are from Georgia, they were part of the second wipe of the Great Migration, they came after World War II, 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, and Lorraine Hansberry's mother had to patrol the house at night with a gun.
Brooke Gladstone: And in the end they threw little Molotov cocktails and set fire to the place?
Natalie Moore: Yes.
Brooke Gladstone: As a young man, Carl Hansberry, 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 (character from A Raisin in the Sun): Do you really feel ...
Walter (character from A Raisin in the Sun): No, no, don't worry about how I feel. Come on, get out of my house.
Lindner: Okay. All right, what do you people think you have to gain by moving into a neighborhood where you're not wanted? People get awfully worked up when they feel their whole way of life, everything they've worked for is threatened.
Walter: Get out. [END CLIP]
Brooke Gladstone: Hansberry actually won his case on a technicality, later of course his angry neighbors could not have sued.
Newsreel Announcer: The Civil Rights Act of 1968, included in the measure was a landmark Open Housing Bill, which went fully effective with indiscrimination and approximately 80% of all housing offered for rent or for sale in the United Sates.
Lyndon B. Johnson: It proclaims that fair housing for all human beings who live in this country is now a part of the American way of life.
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.
Newsreel Announcer: There are blocks like this scattered throughout the Lawndale section of Chicago's westside ghetto. The people who live here bought their homes from real estate speculators at 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 bills 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.
Brooke Gladstone: 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 live 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."
Brooke Gladstone: Back in 1961, Clyde Ross, a Mississippi refugee, signed a $27,000 contract on a Lawndale home that speculators had purchased weeks earlier for $12,000. To make the payments he worked three jobs, from 6:00 AM to 10:00 PM, 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 that 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.
Brooke Gladstone: In 1968, Ross became co-chairman of the Contract Buyers League.
News Announcer: The people of Lawndale organized the Contract Buyers League, and during the past year the league began urging large numbers of buyers to withhold the payments on their contract.
Interviewee: Because 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 an, what is termed here excess profits ...
Interviewer: Immoral profit.
Interviewee: ... immoral? I don't know if it is. I talked to this student here who was saying, "They made fantastic profits," and I said, "What is a fantastic profit?"
Interviewer: Well it seems pretty clear, if the house is sold for $25,000 which is valued by the FHA at 15,000 that is excess profit, right.
Interviewee: Possibly, yes. I won't say definitely, but possibly it would appear that way, but it's not necessarily so, but there are many businesses that do make 50s, maybe 100% profits ...
Interviewer: No, not-
Interviewee: ... not many, not many, but there are some, and the greater the risk they're entitled to.
Dr. Martin Luther King: Many of the people who supported us in Selma, in Birmingham were really outraged about the extremist behavior toward Negroes ...
Brooke Gladstone: Dr. Martin Luther King.
Dr. Martin Luther King: ... 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 10-12 years to a struggle for genuine equality, and this is where we're getting the resistance because there was never any intention to go this far.
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 post-war 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 three 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's not coming in, it is in, and the great question now is precisely what we've got in the bank. This of course is 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.
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.
Jazz Singer: Interest got to go on just like rent, I may be crazy but I ain't no fool. 100 years of death at 10% per year, per 40 acres, and per mule, now add that up, ooh eeh look at that. No wonder you all call great grandma a jewel, just pay me that and call the whole thing square, yes Lord, a 40 acres and a mule.
Brooke Gladstone: That's it for this week's show, On the Media is produced by Alana Casanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan, Xandra Ellen, and Elouise Blondiau. Our technical director's Jennifer Munson, our engineers this week were Sam Barr and Josh Han, Eve Clarkston and Catherine Simon produced the eviction series, Mark Henry Phillips composed and performed the original score. You can find all four episodes on our website and onthemedia.org. Just look for The Scarlet E. Katya Rogers is our executive producer, On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios, Bob Garfield will be back next week, I am Brooke Gladstone.