By: Dan Dildy
I was only seven years old at the time, but I knew by the look on my momma’s face she was dead serious, “Don’t tell your daddy I forged his signature,” she said. My brother, who was a few years older than me, seemed to at least understand what “forged” meant, so I shook my head affirmatively as if I knew what momma was talking about.
It was 1954 and my parents were buying their first home, but I was just a kid and what did I know about black women and credit? I learned later that a woman — especially a black woman — simply couldn’t get credit on her own in those days; the problem for momma, however, was that daddy was uneducated and could not sign his own name. But, all things considered, we were actually in a good situation because blacks in Michigan were in the 60% of new home buyers at the time.
My parents were among the more than 6 million African Americans who migrated to the North and West during the Great Migration, which actually began around 1915 and continued on into the 1960s. Black folks had been escaping southern Jim Crow laws for decades, and fortunately for me and my family, Detroit — where I was born — was ‘King Car” at the time; the post WW II economy had developed a solid, booming middle class, and Lord knows my daddy couldn’t read and write, like many grandsons of slaves, but he could sure work, and there was plenty of that available when my momma forged daddy’s name on those mortgage papers.
Now, generally speaking the middle class WAS doing spectacularly well as Detroit’s “Big Three” automakers, that being Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors, were producing sleek, fancy cars at a record pace for the returning veterans from both WWII and the Korean Conflict, but black folks weren’t allowed in the powerful United Auto Workers (UAW) union. And the consequence of that was that daddy couldn’t earn the same wage as that of a white worker, which placed us and many other black families, on the lower end of the middle–class boom. We didn’t really understand it at the time, but we were poor: momma worked also, just to make ends meet.
Although my parents struggled to keep the house going, as I grew older, I realized the importance of the foundation and example they set for my brother and me. Home ownership is a big deal and is a hallmark investment that establishes wealth and financial security. But for black folks, home ownership — a major goal of the American Dream — has been elusive for many reasons, but primarily was the result of racism and discrimination.
For example, in 1968 starting with the Civil Rights era, the black home ownership rate increased for 30 straight years and reached nearly 50 percent of the African American population in 2004, but all those gains have been wiped out in the last 15 years, largely as a result of the devastating housing foreclosure crisis in 2007. Of course, blacks were hurt the worst — losing more than 6 percent of their homes nationwide, versus white losses of only 2 percent on average — and have had the most difficult time recovering. Currently black home ownership is at a 50–year low, lower than what it was when discrimination was legal, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
When my momma and daddy bought their first home, the American middle class was just establishing its footing in society for the majority of the population, so getting signatures for a mortgage — along with some type of steady income — were fairly basic and simple requirements. But my parents would be shocked at the level of sophistication involved in securing a mortgage these days.
Indeed, because of that sophistication on top of the familiar bigotry and racism, black home ownership is farther out of reach now than ever before. And the problem is made worse by the lack of wealth equity, savings, educational achievement, and even health issues — all problematic and classic dysfunctions typical of poor black communities. In 1954, my daddy couldn’t sign mortgage papers because he couldn’t read and write; fast forward 70 years later and that obstacle is just one of a list of black home buyers’ concerns.
Aside from institutionalized discriminatory factors, such as red-lining, the decline in black home ownership rates are many and complicated. Various studies have shown that African Americans as a group compared with whites have lower credit scores, lower incomes and education levels, leading to fewer home ownership rates, which ultimately contribute to the social problems that prevent home ownership, a primary wealth-building tool.
In recent Pew Research, it was determined that the wealth of white households is 13 times greater than that of black households up from eight times the wealth of blacks in 2010. Indeed, African American home ownership is going nowhere fast, in spite of what some politicians, especially President Trump, would have you believe.
The falling homeowner rates are troubling in terms of future wealth for blacks, and has deep social implications. The impact on the quality of schools, the ability to draw national business brands, police protection, and other city services are all reflected in home ownership in any given neighborhood. Further, the foreclosure ownership loss represented over a trillion dollars of black wealth, and it is projected that it will take generations to return to pre-2007 levels.
The National Association of Real Estate Brokers, an African-American group created in the 1940’s to promote home ownership, points to a list of issues that are causes for concern going forward; potential black buyers are fearful of getting involved in the same sub-prime debacle that was partly responsible for the 2007 foreclosure crisis. In that scenario, lenders often led buyers into risky, high-interest sub-prime loans, even though many were qualified for less costly and routine conventional loans. During this predatory lending, many homeowners re-financed their loans leaving them with nothing when the crisis hit.
As if she saw into the future, my momma predicted a crisis a year or so before she died, “Keep the house in good shape if you can, just in case you ever want to sell it.” The house was on the lower East Side of Detroit and was still in fairly good condition. But the surrounding area in that part of town had deteriorated over the years, and it no longer had any resale value.
So, as with many homeowners in a depressed Detroit, there was nothing left to do but sell the land back to the city for little or nothing. Indeed, Mayor Mike Duggan recently proposed a $250 million bond program to remove what’s left of the old homes in the area, which means more neighborhoods could be targeted and more Detroit residents could do the work. “We’ve taken down 19,000 houses in the past five years. We have 19,000 more to go,” Duggan said.
My hard-working daddy couldn’t read and write, but he and momma worked years to get and maintain that home; now it was reduced to nothing but urban blight.