I drove through the area looking for the address we wanted to see and it did not take long to realize that this was not the neighborhood that I wanted to put my family. I have been to war and I have felt that moment when all your senses engage at high gain because you are in bad guy land. I never expected to feel that in America. I admit I was naive. My only excuse was that while my knowledge of such places was in my forebrain, the instinctive level of danger had never penetrated to the hindbrain, the animal side if you will. I did not fear before.
It was with great relief that we drove out of those areas and we knew exactly when we crossed back into Middle America.
How did it all start? In my own search for housing it think a found the cause and effect: the American Dream has a double standard. Owning a home allows a person to build equity in that property. A house, properly maintained, will generally retain value and the owner will, at some point, be able to access that value. But there are two major variables. The value of the home can increase or decrease and the equity will go with it.
Life is good if the equity goes up. But if it doesn’t, you get a trap.
These neighborhoods were packed. Small ostensibly affordable homes jammed one right after the other to put as many single and duplex homes together as possible in a small geographic place. They were nice homes, 20 years ago. Something happened in the intervening time and the entire area showed it.
These homes were the suburbs 30 years ago. Now they are part of the urban blight with trees. There were no major stores in the area. No high end retailers. There were lots of vacant shops with broken windows, and that grocer with the armed guard.
How did it happen? My best guess is that the middle class Americans who finally managed to gain enough equity, moved further out. While the area might have been nice, it was still tight with no yards to speak of so moving to a new house with a yard was a plus. And when they cashed out, individuals who were struggling to climb out of poverty reached up and found that perhaps they could afford a slice of middle class.
The equity cashed out once, was not returned again. They purchased a home that did not gain in value because it was older, the other houses around it were older, and the yards were small. The reason for affluence is space and wealth and these areas were rapidly losing both. But it was still a step up from where most were at so they reached and instead of climbing out of poverty, they brought it with them.
As a home owner, life can be good and it can also be bad. You have to maintain your home. All those house renovation shows are advertising for the American Dream but you have to be able to afford to make those upgrades and the people in these areas were trying but the cost was just too high.
The repairs they could not afford were left undone or done in such a way that it might have solved the problem, but made the situation worse. A plastic tarp draped over the roof might stop a leak. But it also causes the property value to go down. And as one house drops, so does the next until the house is worth less than it was paid for and those poor, who tried to so desperately to escape, find that they only moved the trap with them.
I found this especially true when dealing with realtors for rental agreements. I know several realtors and they candidly told me the truth when I asked. You have to fork over cash for a credit check. The realtor will not run an application without a fee. Second, that cost provides at least a slice of income to the realtor because the credit check itself does not cost that much. The realtors deny more credit checks than they approve. In essence they are milking poverty.
They are not doing it in a deliberate fashion or necessarily with malice of intent but they are taking a fee that they keep part of and then turn around and give bad news.
Rent after all costs more than the mortgage does. The trap is that you cannot get a mortgage without good credit, you have to be able to afford the mortgage for the area or the cost of the home, and the mortgage company is not about to put money down a hole.
That is the trap. Poverty brings blight and those individuals in it will never escape it. I drove out of that area. Every realtor I sent in an application to was happy to talk to me. I got approved in a day. I might not have ever appreciated my middle class status before but I understand it better now.
I have no clue how to repair the damage and stop neighborhoods from become a trap. It would take a concerted effort of will and finance to repair what was broken. Just throwing money at it will waste the money because the damage is as much mental as physical.
There is income equality in America but the real reason for the broken American Dream in these areas is greed.
Our society is very open but also very unforgiving. If you have economic prosperity, live will trundle along and you don’t even have to worry about it. If you don’t, it will drag you down and there is nothing you can do to get out of it.
Everything works against you. The poor value of a neighborhood moves higher paying jobs further away, moves better quality goods and services to more affluent areas, the increase in want and need causes anger and frustration which leads to higher crime rates, which leads to further decreases in perceived value, which makes it worse. They cycle spirals downward until there is nothing left of value. Houses, once the stepping stone upward, become the millstone dragging you down.
How do we fix it? I don’t have a damn clue how to fix what is broken right now, but the only way to improve the situation is education and opportunity. But first you have to fix the resentment that is also part of such situations and that requires both understanding and forgiveness. Which is something you cannot demand or legislate.
This article first appeared in The Havok Journal 26 July 2018.