Still, the difficulties white America has faced during the foreclosure crisis don't compare with what Wall Street and the banks have inflicted, physically and psychologically, on African American neighborhoods. As countless leaked documents, insider dispositions, and Department of Justice filings demonstrate, those neighborhoods were systematically and illegally targeted for the worst of the worst mortgages. As one former Wells Fargo mortgage broker explained in a sworn affidavit, "The company put 'bounties' on minority borrowers. By this I mean that loan officers received cash incentives to aggressively market subprime loans in minority communities."
This pushing of predatory loans was all the more insidious because these same communities had been starved of mortgages for decades as a result of the Federal Housing Authority's refusal to guarantee loans in communities of color. As Mike Fannon, development associate for the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, explained, "The same banks that denied capital now injected too much toxic capital and decimated the local economy."
The effect, according to a 2012 National Fair Housing Alliance report, has been "the largest loss of wealth for these communities in modern history." Between 2009 and 2012 African Americans lost just under $200 billion in wealth, bringing the gap between white and black wealth to a staggering 20:1 ratio.
There is also a longer trajectory of racial exclusion at play here, a history that makes the foreclosure crisis yet another chapter in an epic and enduring quest for home. From enslavement to sharecropping, redlining to restrictive covenants, the United States has too often been an inhospitable land for people of color. Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King echoed W.E.B. Dubois in declaring that the African American still "finds himself in exile in his own land." Today, it's hard not to see that reality painted across the 2010 census data, where the maps measuring the concentration of vacant houses and the maps measuring the concentration of African Americans, while not exactly the same, are uncomfortably close to a match.
As Ben Austen wrote in the New York Times Magazine, "The US Postal Service, which tracks these numbers, reported that 62,000 properties in Chicago were vacant at the end of last year, with two-thirds of them clustered as if to form a sinkhole in just a few black neighborhoods on the South and West Sides." The same phenomenon holds true in cities across the country. And once a house is empty in such neighborhoods, all too often, no one is moving back in.
Crime Starts at the Top
"There were feces in the basement, urine, rolled-up carpet," said Thomas Turner, a housing activist in Chicago describing the inside of a foreclosed home, once owned, according to neighbors, by an 80-year-old man. Under the ownership of the Pittsburgh-based bank PNC, Turner explained, "It was abandoned for six years, so squatters and strippers had punched holes in the walls. There was no toilet, no tub, all the kitchen cabinets were torn out. The bedroom looked like someone had taken a sledgehammer and just started swinging… I still see gang members on the front porch or rolling up real slow in the car."
Another Chicago resident, Erica Johnson, described a vacant home similarly. "There were clothes, books, broken dressers, little white drug bags, used condoms," she said. "It was a little drug house, and they were probably bringing their girls up in here."
Some foreclosed homes become brothels, such as a Deutsche Bank-owned house in South Los Angeles where the girls' names and prices were scrawled in blue marker across the upstairs walls. Others become meth labs or gang hideouts.
These bank-owned vacant houses help spread crime and poverty in already distressed communities—a reality that became obvious to me when I accompanied Dorian Morris, a certified building inspector, on one of his surveys of the vacant homes on the north side of Minneapolis. Signs on nearly every home advertised the severity of the housing crisis in this area: neon green "no trespassing" stickers on boarded-up foreclosed homes and red "stand together, stop foreclosure" posters on places supporting Occupy Homes Minneapolis. On more than a dozen lots, the only indication that a family once lived there was a skinny red metal rod marking the spot where a razed house once stood.
As in other hard-hit African American neighborhoods across the country, residents here had organized to stop bank-pursued evictions from stripping the value from the community. Neighborhood support had, for instance, helped a mother named Monique White beat her eviction in a highly publicized six-month battle against US Bank only weeks before I arrived. Still, the never-ending evictions were eating away at the stability of the neighborhood.
"That's a known crack house," said Morris, as he pointed at a brick structure less than 100 meters away from a neighborhood park. More than half the homes within sight were boarded up with plywood. Within five minutes, we had passed two former residences he identified as current drug houses and a handful more that he said had already been raided by the police—all foreclosed homes where families used to live.
As we drove, we discussed the illegal chain of events that transformed these homes into drug dens. The crimes started at the top. Banks peddled toxic mortgages like crack, paying employees cash incentives to push them in African American neighborhoods. The loans exploded, so they forged millions of foreclosure affidavits to speed state-enforced evictions.
Once homes are vacant, bank contractors insufficiently seal and maintain them, allowing intruders to strip the houses of their copper wiring, plumbing, and sometimes even the furnace. The copper alone sells for anywhere from 50 cents to a dollar per pound. Finally, people dealing drugs begin to use the houses at night as distribution centers. The street-level crime drags down neighboring property values, spurring more foreclosures and evictions. And so the cycle continues.
Banks are legally obligated to maintain and market their foreclosed properties, but they often shirk those responsibilities—especially in communities of color. In an investigation of more than 1,000 homes across the country, the National Fair Housing Alliance found that bank-owned homes in communities of color were more likely than homes in white neighborhoods to have graffiti and peeling paint on the exterior, trash and dead leaves strewn across the sidewalk, unsecured locks on the doors, and be missing "for sale" signs on their front lawns.
Foreclosed houses in such neighborhoods were also 80% more likely to have a broken or boarded-up window, and 30% more likely to have trash on the front lawn. After a lawsuit, Wells Fargo paid $42 million to settle charges of racially discriminatory maintenance; there's scant evidence to suggest the practice has changed since. Cities have increased fines levied against banks that don't maintain their houses, but not a single bank has been held accountable for drug dealing, murders, and rapes that occur on their unmaintained or poorly maintained properties. The only "crime" they appear concerned about is when community activists try to fix up such homes and move families in—doing the job the bank was supposed to do in the first place. Then banks call the police to arrest the "trespassers."