On October 11, 2009, when Isaac Dieudonne was two years old, his family moved into a new home in Miramar, Florida. As they began to unpack, young Isaac bounded out the front door in search of fun. The parents found him several minutes later, floating dead in the fetid pool of a foreclosed house.
Since the financial crisis began in 2008, approximately 5.7 million properties have completed the foreclosure process, and stories like this begin to answer the critical question of what happens to all those homes. While many are resold, too often they fall into disrepair, creating blight that drags down property values and turns communities into potential deathtraps, attracting not just mosquitoes and mold, but crime and tragedy.
According to expert reports, this neglect occurs disproportionately in communities of color, part of a disturbing pattern. While the Supreme Court has reaffirmed the ability to use the Fair Housing Act to challenge discriminatory effects in neighborhoods, the nation’s neighborhood layout looks more segregated than ever, exacerbating the racial wealth gap. There’s no point in having an anti-housing discrimination law if it isn't vigorously employed to prevent a real societal division that drags down minority families. The Justice Department, free of uncertainty about the Fair Housing Act’s future, needs to work to realize the law's intended purpose.
The housing recovery has skipped more low-income neighborhoods. Fifteen percent of homes worth less than $200,000 are still underwater, where the borrower owes more on the house than it’s worth. This is compared to only six percent of homes over $200,000. Property values in low-income neighborhoods have not bounced back to the degree of their wealthier counterparts.
An important study from Stanford University shows how this housing divide doesn’t align with socioeconomic status, but with race. Middle-class black households are more likely to live in neighborhoods with lower incomes than the average low-income white household. This creates fewer opportunities for minorities, as neighborhood poverty can predict the quality of schooling and the availability of jobs for the next generation. A report from the American Civil Liberties Union shows that median household wealth for African-Americans continued to drop after the housing collapse, long after median wealth for whites stabilized. They project this to continue well into the next generation, with a drop in the average black family’s wealth by $98,000 more than it would have been without the Great Recession.
Foreclosures are largely responsible for this widening disparity. Predatory lending was directed at minority homeowners. Subprime mortgages were given disproportionately to minority borrowers, and after the housing bubble collapsed, these loans failed at higher rates. Racial segregation prior to the crisis turned these neighborhoods into targets, with subprime lending specialists going door-to-door and luring even those who owned their homes outright into refinances with dodgy terms. Banks like Wells Fargo and Bank of America paid fines for pushing minority borrowers into subprime loans, even when they qualified for better interest rates. But these fines—$175 million and $335 million, respectively—were substantially lower than they paid for other bubble-era abuses.
More black and Latino borrowers had their wealth exclusively tied up in their homes, and when they lost them, more of their wealth dissipated. Even after the collapse, the Federal Reserve found that from 2010-2013, net worth of nonwhite or Hispanic families fell 17 percent, compared to an increase of 2 percent for white families.
This wealth transferred in part to Wall Street. Private equity and hedge funds scooped up hundreds of thousands foreclosed properties in low-income communities, and converted them into rentals. This prevented minority homeowners from benefiting from any return in property values, and displaced many from their neighborhoods. And a recent survey of community organizations finds that this has created higher rents and more transient neighborhoods.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development, along with quasi-public mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, auction off these homes to investors at a discount, according to a study from the Center for Popular Democracy. The U.S. Conference of Mayors recently passed a resolution urging these government lenders to sell instead to non-profits that would work to protect homes from foreclosure.
And then there is the disparate treatment of foreclosed properties repossessed by banks, known as real estate owned (REO). The National Fair Housing Alliance’s findings in 29 metropolitan areas indicate that REO in communities of color are twice more likely to have damaged doors and windows, overgrown weeds and trash on the premises and holes in the roof or structure. This violates the Fair Housing Act: Banks are responsible for maintenance and upkeep on all properties, and if they neglect that in black and Latino neighborhoods, the Justice Department can sanction them.
The failure to maintain foreclosed properties has multiple negative effects for communities. Blight creates health and safety concerns, acts as magnets for crime, and lowers property values for neighboring homes. It also reduces the tax base for municipalities, as nobody pays property taxes on an empty house. The city of Detroit has already lost $500 million from foreclosures in the past few years; 78 percent of homes with subprime loans are know foreclosed or abandoned.
Last week, fifteen Senate Democrats, including leaders Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin and ranking member of the Banking Committee Sherrod Brown, asked regulators to open an investigation into the treatment of foreclosed properties. “The same communities of color that were victimized by predatory lending may now be facing the double whammy of racial bias when it comes to the upkeep of foreclosed homes,” said Brown. But policing foreclosed properties would only begin to close the gap between white and non-white neighborhoods.
The entire point of the Fair Housing Act, passed shortly after Martin Luther King’s death in 1968, was to reverse the findings of the Kerner Commission, that the country “is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” But reading through these statistics, you wouldn’t know the Fair Housing Act existed. We are further than ever from what Justice Anthony Kennedy described as the act’s “role in moving the Nation toward a more integrated society.” It has been impotent in the face of multiple discriminatory shots at people of color, which has opened up a historically large wealth gap and crippled their opportunity.
Until we figure out another way for the middle class to build wealth other than purchasing a mortgage, the discriminatory effects of our housing system will further a permanent underclass among people of color in America. The Justice Department has an enormous amount of work to do.