Tuesday Nov 30

Reflections Moving Forward By Holding Back

 

By Michael Gallagher

Moving Forward By Holding Back “C’mon, baby don’t you want to go Back to that same old place, sweet home Chicago.” —Robert Johnson

It was the housing ripoff from hell

Here is how it worked in a nutshell:

In the years following the second world war

Another wave of the Great Migration was peaking.

In Chicago where black working families were seeking

Basic housing. The growing population caused demand to soar.

This market situation became an open invitation to speculate.

Real estate wheeler/dealers took the opportunity to accelerate

White flight by panic peddling and blockbusting—scare the whites out.

Buy their homes cheap, sell to African Americans at twice (or 3X) the purchase price

The scheme was lucrative without any doubt. Especially because they weren’t using their own money.* Nice.

But this sort of price gouging was by no means all there was to it

The inflated price charged to blacks was only half the story:

There was a red line around certain neighborhoods. Our own government drew it.

Segregation was not de facto/accidental but de jure/mandatory.

Because of redlining—no credit for blacks in certain marked zones —

African American had no access to conventional mortgage loans.

*(The same savings and loans backed the speculators

No money for you, but plenty for the bottom dwelling alligators)

 

Instead the black families were forced to buy on installment contract:

Thirty year note, with no equity until the final payment.

If you missed a monthly payment, you could be tossed out on the pavement

Clearly the deck was unfairly stacked.

You had all the obligations of a homeowner (taxes, insurances, upkeep) But fewer rights than a tenant. Work 2-3 jobs, lose a lot of sleep.

 

In 1968 the homebuyers started to organize

They formed the Contract Buyers League (CBL)

A new and better deal—that was the sought after prize.

Picket at the real estate offices. Could they win? Time would tell.

The tactic was effective to a significant degree:

400 families were able to renegotiate, get their seller to agree

To better terms, switch over to conventional mortgage loans.

A victory, what was hoped to be the first of coming milestones

But the majority of the sellers carried on with their duplicity.

And refused to meet in spite of all the bad publicity

The buyers decided the next move was to hit them in the pocket

They called it “Moving Forward by Holding Back” Just a straightforward money talks attack.

 

The campaign to hold back monthly payments took off like a rocket And spread from Lawndale to the South Side (like a virus spreading germs)

Where Universal Builders offered homes on similar unfavorable terms.

They placed the money in escrow accounts Pledged to pay fair, not bloated, purchase and sale amounts.

At first the sellers were quiet, content to let things slide

 

But eventually they mounted their counteroffensive, went to court

To seek evictions. The law was definitely on their side.

In Illinois, under the Forcible Entry and Detainer Act,

A tenant has no defense against eviction, non-payment is sufficient fact.

The first eviction took place on the South Side,

The sheriff sent a few deputies, but once they got inside

They were surprised to find a hundred neighbors, ministers, priests and nuns Camped out on all the chairs.

They left, but promised next time to bring guns.

 

Sure enough, the next time they came in force in a big school bus,

Moved out all the household furniture out onto the sidewalk.

As soon as they departed, no hesitation, nothing to discuss —

The neighbors moved everything back in. For the sheriff another deadlock.

 

The stalemate went on for a year but could not continue. The sheriff stepped up his game.

Tensions climbed higher. Armed Black Panthers appeared on the roofs.

Following one successful eviction, the house went up in flame.

So the League filed a federal class action lawsuit thinking they had the proofs.

The lawsuit dragged on for seven long years.

Just before the case went to the jury, the judge granted

The sellers’ motion to dismiss. You can imagine the tears

Of hundreds of families left bereft and disenchanted.

 

In the end, it is calculated that Chicago’s black households were robbed of $500 million in equity and wealth

It was taken away right out in the open, not by stealth.

Blame the speculators, of course, but blame others too:

The banks and S&Ls and the federal government alphabet stew

FHA and VA were the problem, not the solution.

As a Catholic I know that without contrition, there is no absolution.

 

An argument for reparations? You could certainly make the case.

Many evil deeds have been committed in the name of race.

Albert Einstein called racism the “white sickness,” a cancer.

If you’ve ever wondered how we got so screwed up, the story I’ve just told is part of the answer.

 

Postscript

Income is what you get and spend; wealth is what you keep. The most common way Americans are able to build wealth is through homeownership. A house is a real asset that appreciates in value while at the same time providing shelter. Denied this well-worn path to wealth accumulation, African Americans hold(and have to pass on to their children) only a fraction of the wealth enjoyed by others in our nation. How are we ever going to fix that? [Read the Atlantic article by Ta-Nehsi Coates cited below for one clear idea]. It is hard to get ahead when you are burdened by a double race tax—once on the price and the second time on the terms.

I played only a small part in the CBL story. I went to work for the organization in 1970 —after all the picketing, withholding and eviction drama was over. I worked pouring through real estate transaction records, obtained through the legal discovery process, at a downtown research office. Every organization needs organizers. The Contract Buyers League was put together by then Jesuit seminarian Jack Macnamara, working out of Presentation parish on Pulaski Avenue. Jack had taught high school at Xavier in Cincinnati and recruited several of his former students—by then in college—to do the research and door knocking. Among them were Mark Splain, Peter Cassady, Jim Devanney, David Quammen, Peter Welch, Tom Mackey, Marc Young and Joe Putnick.

Jack sadly passed away recently at the age of 81, still working to right the wrongs he saw all around him. He never lost his hunger and thirst for justice. Jack did not take ordination, dropped out of the Jesuits, married Peggy and had seven kids. When Keith Kelleher and I went to Chicago in 1983 to start work on the homecare workers organizing campaign, we stayed at his house. Later, whenever I was in Chicago to visit our son who lives there, I would make it a point to have lunch with Jack to catch up on his latest passion. When Wall Street hedge funds bought up thousands of foreclosed houses cheap from Fannie Mae in the wake of the 2008 housing meltdown and then sold them on installment contracts (now rebranded as “contract for deed” at huge markups, Jack was all over the case. He raised money and brought old CBLers together to fight this resurrected form of exploitation [Read more about it in the article by friend and neighbor Chuck Collins cited below]. This poem is dedicated to his memory.

My friend Keith was canvassing in Lawndale for a political campaign not long ago and happened to knock on the door of Clyde Ross. Mr. Ross, who had been a CBL leader along with other courageous fighters like Mattie Lewis, Ethyl Weatherspoon, Charlie Baker and Ruth Wells, is now in his late 90’s. He was part of the migration to Chicago from Mississippi where his father had been swindled out of his 40 acre farm. He worked three jobs to keep up the payments on his Lawndale house—days at Campbell Soup, evenings at the post office and late night delivering pizzas. He was one of those buyers who was able to renegotiate his contract and convert to a conventional mortgage. Keith told me he is healthy as could be and his home is immaculate. You have to wonder whether all of Lawndale would have equally thrived under fairer housing rules.

 

Further Reading

Isabel Wilkerson—The Warmth of Other Suns Random House. 2010

Ta-Nehsi Coates—The Case for Reparations The Atlantic. June, 2014. pp. 54–71.

James Alan McPherson—In My Father’s House There Are Many Mansions—And I’m Going to Get Me Some of Them Too The Story of the Contract Buyers League The Atlantic. 1972. pp. 51–82.

Richard Rothstein—The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America Liveright. 2017.

Beryl Satter—Family Properties: Race, Real Estate and the Exploitation of Black Urban America New York, NY Metropolitan Books, 2009

Chuck Collins—Private Equity: The New Neighborhood American Loan Sharks...—Private Equity: The New Neighborhood American Loan Sharks The American Prospect July 11, 2019

 

 

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