Sometimes Even Houses Are Beyond Fixing!

Brokenhouses082013

Driving down Greenmount Avenue to the Baltimore Montessori School, a sweet little 4 year old exclaimed gleefully, “O goody, we get to see the broken houses.”

Hidden behind those broken houses are community groups who have kept the faith with their neighborhoods and private and nonprofit developers who have steadily resurrected those broken houses, one at a time.  Telesis, People’s Homesteading, St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, Harbor Development, AHC, and individual homesteaders trying to hold on to their vision of a home for themselves and their loved ones.

Next year, St. Ambrose will hit the 500 mark – 500 vacant, foreclosed properties turned into lovely family homes,   The City has joined with us to make our efforts more visible by tackling the issue of 16,000 vacant properties that overwhelm the efforts of community partners like HUD, MICA, Hopkins and University of Baltimore.

Echoing a quote from an editorial in this morning’s Sun, “….That’s why last week’s announcement by the Rawlings-Blake administration of a major push forward in the Vacants to Value program is like a fresh breeze on a smoggy summer day. It demonstrates that when it comes to the issue of vacant homes, city leaders “get it.” They realize that the piecemeal, glacially slow approach of recent years, whereby a few hundred derelict houses are demolished annually, simply isn’t good enough for a city in a hurry to take its rightful place among the leaders in the nation’s ongoing urban renaissance.”  To read more – http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/opinion/editorial/bs-ed-vacant-houses-20130822,0,5392477.story.

To learn more about the City’s methodical plan to approach this problem, check out their website.  http://www.baltimorehousing.org/vacants_to_value.aspx

Take Back the Land: A Human Rights Approach to Housing

Image Source: Take Back the Land

This week, we take a divergence from the dense, policy-based reporting of the last several posts to focus on a small, little known social movement, the Take Back the Land Movement.  Take Back the Land, an intentionally designed social movement that emerged via the work of diligent community organizers, possesses one central theme: to elevate the issue of Housing as a Human Right.

On it’s face, it’s easy to conflate the Miami-based organization with the countless other housing non-profits throughout the country, whose work is often challenged by bureaucracy and whose funding is likewise handcuffed by strictly regulated government grants.  But Take Back the Land is different.  It’s a grass roots movement that advocates on behalf of the homeless, with the goal of housing longtime homeless individuals and families as well as folks who’ve been displaced during the foreclosure crisis.  And unlike the stereotypical “social movement,” which often encounter criticism for being “too much talk, not enough action,” Take Back the Land has succeeded in finding houses for displaced individuals through a creative yet simplistic technique: moving people into foreclosed properties.

It’s easy to wonder how this is accomplishable and why the movement is yet to come across serious issues with law enforcement. In an ABC News segment, Max Rameau, a spokesperson for the movement, offers a good reason: “this [foreclosed house] is a complete waste.  This is not benefitting anyone.  It’s not benefitting the bank, it’s not benefitting the community, it’s not benefiting the families.  There’s no reason this house is empty.” (Rameau also wrote a book about developing a homeless village in an effort to provide affordable housing for low-income people, “Take Back the Land: Land, Gentrification and the Umoja Village Shantytown”).   Furthermore, rather than face trouble with the law, the movement, at least in Miami, is gaining the police’s support.  ABC spoke with the city’s Chief of Police, who expressed a refusal to enforce eviction notices, stating, “what Social Good would be served by arresting this mother, taking her away from her children?”

The movement has gained traction in several parts of the country, and while it’s not officially a non-profit, it’s website indicates that it has networked with “Local Action Groups” in cities coast to coast, ranging from Atlanta to Madison to Portland to Rochester.  While not a policy-promoting organization, Take Back the Land’s approach mirrors a policy alternative discussed both in our blog as well as at Mayor Rawlings-Blake’s recent Vacant’s to Values summit, Code Enforcement.

The theory behind Code Enforcement involves heavily cracking down on delinquent property owners to ensure that they meet the city’s code; if they do not, the government, in one step, can turn the property back to the market, where it will be sold in a competitive auction.  The idea behind the notion is that it would give property owners a strong incentive to maintain their homes while redirecting properties to a better owner if they do not.  Similarly, by putting families back into vacant homes, Take Back the Land helps ensure that the homes are once again properly maintained and meeting code, keeping neighborhood property values up and benefitting the broader community.  Their residents pay utilities, giving added business to companies that provide these services.

There are thousands of foreclosed properties in Baltimore and millions in the nation, the effect of which, in addition to harming families, encumber neighborhoods and by extension, capital markets and economies.  Rather than high-minded policies, Take Back the Land provides a plainspoken way to mitigate this crisis, and rather than sitting back and spouting out ideas, they are acting. By doing so, they begin to make progress towards their stated objectives of encouraging the perception of housing as a human right, local control over housing, community-based leadership, and direct action campaigns.  To be sure, plenty of their operations are illegal. However, policymakers and activists alike can benefit from the organization’s can-do spirit and human rights oriented strategy.

Housing, White Privilege, and Wealth Inequality

As a social justice issue, housing seems simple and relatively bland: people need shelter, what else is there to talk about?

A lot, actually.

Housing issues are related to a complex web of social justice concerns. Two related concerns that are particularly relevant to housing are white privilege and wealth inequality. In fact,  understanding the history of discrimination in America—particularly housing discrimination—is indispensable to understanding contemporary economic inequality.  What’s the connection between housing,  white privilege, and wealth inequality? Here’s a statistic that might surprise you:

The Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration financed more than $120 billion worth of new housing between 1934 and 1962, but less than 2% of this real estate was available to nonwhite families—and most of that small amount was located in segregated communities.[1]

In other words, for almost three decades the U.S. government backed $120 billion worth of home loans and 98% (!) of those loans went to whites.

How did this institutionalized racism become possible?

Spurred on by massive mortgage foreclosures during the Great Depression, the federal government […] began underwriting mortgages in an effort to enable citizens to become homeowners. But the mortgage program was selectively administered by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), and urban neighborhoods considered poor risks were redlined—an action that excluded virtually all the black neighborhoods and many neighborhoods with a considerable number of European immigrants. [2]

More important than this shocking history, however, is the relationship between home ownership, wealth, and opportunity—a relationship that links past discrimination to economic inequality today. To begin with, a home is one of the most important assets that a family can own. As Dalton Conley—associate professor in the Department of Sociology at New York University—explains in the PBS documentary Racethe Power of an Illusion, “The majority of Americans hold most of their wealth in the form of home equity.”[3] Therefore, because of the significance of housing as an asset, discrimination in housing directly contributed to inequality in wealth accumulation.

Wealth, in turn, is an important determinate of the opportunities that a family can provide for their children. As Larry Adelman has written, “a family’s net worth is not simply the finish line, it’s also the starting line for the next generation.”[4] A family can take out a second mortgage on their home, for instance, to finance their child’s college education or job search. Actions such as these can significantly affect a child’s life trajectory.  Indeed, because of the way that wealth creates opportunity, “Economists have shown that about 50-80% of our lifetime wealth accumulation is really attributable, in one way or another, to past generations,” writes Conley. Wealth, in other words, provides a mechanism that transfers opportunity, or the absence of opportunity, from one generation to the next. It is this intergenerational link between wealth and opportunity that explains why the effects of long past institutionalized racism—such as FHA housing discrimination—are still felt today.  [*]

How are the effects of historic discrimination still felt? Take the “wealth gap,” for example. Thomas Shapiro, in The Hidden Cost of Being African American, writes that “The net worth of typical white families is $81,000 compared to $8,000 for black families.”[6] That’s a 10:1 difference! This present day racial inequality in wealth, however, must be understood in light of the history of institutionalized racism and privilege. And housing discrimination is a fundamental part of that history. As previously mentioned, a home is often a family’s most important asset or source of wealth. Housing discrimination, therefore, created inequality in the accumulation of wealth. Moreover, wealth has two distinct characteristics: 1) it creates opportunity and 2) is it inheritable. The combination of these characteristics produced a dynamic whereby inequality in wealth—initially bolstered by discriminatory practices—was often passed down and maintained from one generation to the next. So long past discrimination in housing affected the wealth and opportunities of later generations. In short, past housing discrimination is an important factor in explaining economic inequality today. Conley writes:

Today, the average Black family has only one-eighth the net worth or assets of the average white family. That difference has seemingly grown since the 1960s, since the Civil Rights triumphs, and is not explained by other factors like education, earnings rates or savings rates. It is really the legacy of racial inequality from generations past. No other measure captures the legacy – the cumulative disadvantage of race for minorities or cumulative advantage of race for whites – than net worth or wealth.[7]

Thus, the reverberations of long past institutionalized racism are still felt today. As a primary example, housing discrimination creates inequality in wealth and opportunity that is often inherited by succeeding generations. Tracing back the linkages between present day inequalities in wealth and past housing discrimination demonstrates that—as a social justice issue—housing isn’t simple. Yet these linkages also show that, in spite of their complexity, contemporary housing issues remain as important as ever.


[1] George Lipsitz. 1998. The Possessive Investment in Whiteness. Philadelphia:Temple University Press.

[2] William Julius Wilson. (2005 [1996]) “When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor,” in Mapping the Social Landscape: Readings in Sociology. ed. by Susan Ferguson. New York: McGraw Hill.

[3] Dalton Conley. 2003. Interviewed in Race the Power of an Illusion. PBS Transcript available at http://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_04-background-03-03.htm.

[4] Larry Adelman. 2003. A Long History of Racial Preferences – For Whites . http://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_04-background-03-02.htm.

[*] Note that wealth, not income, has been the touchstone for economic status throughout this discussion. This is no accident. For wealth, not income, is a much better indicator of opportunity: “Even when families of the same income are compared,” explains Adelman, “white families have more than twice the wealth of Black families. Much of that wealth difference can be attributed to the value of one’s home, and how much one inherited from parents.”

[6] Thomas M. Shapiro. 2004. The Hidden Cost of Being African American: How Wealth Perpetuates Inequality. New York: Oxford University Press.

[7] Dalton Conley. 2003. Interviewed in Race the Power of an Illusion. PBS Transcript available at http://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_04-background-03-03.htm.