People tell me the housing bubble has burst, but you wouldn’t know it in my neighborhood. I live in Washington in Mt. Pleasant, about two miles up from the White House. Known for its hippies and their group houses in the Sixties, Mt. Pleasant is dominated by yuppies and their granite countertops today. Real estate agents here still send out postcards boasting about our escalating home prices. One agent recently touted a row house not much bigger than mine that listed for $959,000 and “Sold for $965,000!”
Sadly, I don’t own my home. I rent a room in one of those Sixties remnants, a tumbledown group house on the 1800 block of Kilbourne Place. I used to live on the 1700 block in a home that had been hacked into three small apartments, but the landlord sold out in 2002 for half a million dollars and the only place I could afford nearby was the basement bedroom in this group house. It’s a dry basement, except when it rains.
Still, I feel lucky to live in Mt. Pleasant. Despite the influx of yuppies, we like to consider our neighborhood diverse. And according to the latest census it really is. Washington is one of the most segregated cities in America, but Mt. Pleasant has a fairly even mix of black, white and Latino, with each group hovering around 30 percent of the neighborhood’s population.
But those numbers are misleading. If you live here long enough, you begin to sense there’s not a lot of interaction among us. On my block, the black homeowners are almost all seniors, many of them elderly women who seem to live alone. Almost all the new homeowners—like the ones who paid $732,000 for the house four doors down from me—are white couples of childbearing age. They don’t seem to spend much time in one another’s homes.
The best I can say for myself is that I’m an equal-opportunity hermit. I don’t know the elderly black women on my block, but I don’t know the white yuppies or their kids either. I have my excuses. I’m a writer, or try to be, so I spend all my time holed up at home, not finishing articles like this one.
The best I can say for myself is that I’m an equal-opportunity hermit.
Well, I do leave the house on occasion. Just the other day, I trudged up to my local café—Dos Gringos, it’s called—to buy a cup of coffee. The route took me by my old house, and I noticed a white hipster standing on the sidewalk, staring across the street and smirking. I assumed he was staring at my old place, whose plain bricks are painted a garish yellow now. But as I got closer, I saw he was looking at the house a few doors down. I never knew those neighbors, of course, but they’re African-American, an extended family, I think, who’ve been living there for years. Ever since I moved to Mt. Pleasant, they’ve had a picture on their porch, a framed portrait of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., hanging right by the front door. I’ve always thought of it as a sort of loud and proud mezuzah.
But that’s not what the white hipster was smirking at. A few days earlier, Michael Jackson had died, and there on the columns of the family’s front porch they had hung two large portraits of him. Hand-painted, it seemed, in a style somewhere between a velvet Elvis and folk art. Both were given an even more defiant pride of place than King. I hope I didn’t smirk like the hipster, but my jaw went slack. I saw Jackson as a tragic figure, one to be mourned not celebrated. And even if someone gave him the benefit of the doubt in his molestation cases, how could anyone put the King of Pop up there on a porch with King?
In 1950, Dr. Robert Deane became the first African-American to buy a home in Mt. Pleasant. Two years earlier, it would have been illegal for him to do so.
Like so many American neighborhoods at the time, Mt. Pleasant had an all-white citizens association that organized local homeowners to adopt racial covenants banning the sale of homes to black buyers. In the mid-Forties, James M. Hurd challenged those covenants in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Hurd, an African-American, had tried to buy a home from Frederic and Lena Hodge in D.C.’s LeDroit Park neighborhood, but the Hodges had a racial covenant in their deed and refused to sell. Mrs. Hodge said she’d rather have a white criminal in her neighborhood “because he is white and I am white” than a black family, “no matter how educated or cultivated.”
In 1947, the appeals court ruled in the Hodges’ favor and upheld the legality of racial covenants. But the Supreme Court agreed to hear Hurd’s appeal and made it a companion case to Shelley v. Kraemer, arguably the most important civil rights decision in America before Brown v. Board of Education. Two of the justices had to recuse themselves because they owned property with racial covenants. In May 1948, the slimmed down court ruled unanimously in Shelley that racial covenants could not be legally enforced.
But one Supreme Court case wasn’t enough to win a full measure of justice for the black citizens of Washington. In the middle of 1947, the same year the D.C. appeals court handed down its infamous decision in Hurd v. Hodge, the National Capital Park and Planning Commission released a proposal to revitalize the city. Washington had grown horribly overcrowded during the war years and the city’s public facilities badly needed an upgrade. The chair of the commission, Major General U.S. Grant III, grandson of the Civil War hero, promised a root-and-branch reconstruction of Washington that would leave it teeming with new “playgrounds, public buildings, parks and schools.”
Grant’s plan would have done to black Washington what Sherman’s march did for Atlanta. Grant frankly admitted that several African-American neighborhoods would be gutted and said “the colored population dispossessed” by his efforts would be relocated to distant sites “in the rear of Anacostia,” a section cut off from the rest of D.C. by a river. Defending the plan, an official with the local housing authority explained that “segregation is the accepted pattern of the community.” Although Grant had to shelve some of his more extreme plans, his vision of a dispossessed black population pushed to Anacostia largely came to pass.
While black homeowners like Deane got a foot-hold in Mt. Pleasant and some other all-white neighborhoods, African-Americans lost ground in other areas. Postwar highway projects in Southwest D.C. devastated the black community there. In Foggy Bottom, just north of the Lincoln Memorial, the expansion of George Washington University and other development projects nearly wiped out its African-American population. And the historic black enclave in Georgetown all but disappeared when its residents were priced out of the market.
When I moved into my Mt. Pleasant basement in 2002, the descendants of one of the neighborhood’s old African-American families lived next door. I say descendants, but I don’t know how many of the people who cycled in and out of that house were blood relations. There was an elderly aunt or maybe great aunt who sat on the porch in all but the coldest weather, and in one of our rare conversations she said one of the youngish women in the house had inherited it.
Many small children lived there as well–or did for a few months at a time. The kids would arrive with young women who’d leave them with the elderly aunt and disappear. Before long, the kids would disappear too. One of the longest-standing residents in the house was a surprisingly square man in his late 20s or early 30s. Whether a boyfriend or brother of the owner, I never knew. Weirdly, he was a sucker for classic rock. I’d be under my back porch digging yet another moat to block the rainwater from my room and I’d hear the Steve Miller Band blaring from his window. When he’d spring down the steps to meet friends, I’d hear him singing Eagles songs.
We were friendly in a formal way, and when I’d see him in the bar up the street, we’d nod politely across the room. He seemed to spend even more time at the bar than me. You could see his features thickening, his body a little more bloated by the day. And then, maybe in 2005 or 2006, he was gone, replaced by men who didn’t like the Eagles at all.
Menacing cars with Maryland plates would show up outside the house late at night and someone would start pounding on the front door. Sometimes they’d disappear inside. Other times, the police would show up to quiet them down or take them away. The police visits seemed to grow more and more frequent until suddenly, in the summer of 2008, the contents of the house were emptied out onto the street.
I learned a little while ago that the house was sold to one of D.C.’s most notorious slumlords way back in 2003. The descendants of those old owners must have been desperate for cash, because they sold it to him for just $206,000, an obscenely low price for Mt. Pleasant. Apparently, the slumlord let them live there as tenants and evicted them when their money ran out. The house is still empty, and I have to admit the tomb-like silence is easier to take than the thumps and shouts at 3 a.m.
Fortunately, the whole world is not The Wire. Despite sad stories like that of my neighbors, the black middle class has grown dramatically since the civil rights movement pricked America’s conscience. In 1960, just 13 percent of black workers held middle-class jobs. By 2002, 51 percent did. Say what you will about the Clinton years, but median income for African-American households jumped almost 30 percent while he was in office. The Clinton administration also crusaded successfully to increase minority home ownership.
The problem with that crusade, however, is that it overlooked the needs of people who didn’t or couldn’t or shouldn’t own their homes. As Alyssa Katz points out in Our Lot, her revealing study of the housing bubble and the policies that led to it, the Clinton administration lost focus on the third of Americans—and the roughly half of Latinos and black Americans—who are renters. Between 1995 and 2003, America lost 300,000 units of subsidized rental housing. Even as we built a glut of McMansions over the last decade, we destroyed a tenth of the nation’s public housing apartments.
Fortunately, the whole world is not The Wire.
In 2001, 13.8 million American families spent more than half their income on housing, a crippling cost for shelter. By 2007, more than 18 million families did. Cuts in housing aid hit the poorest fifth of Americans especially hard. In 2007, 53 percent of them spent more than half their income on housing. A 2008 Zogby poll found that 43 percent of all Americans paid more than the government’s recommended maximum of 30 percent of their income for housing.
Just as rivers run where the landscape allows, so commerce flows where rules and regulations let it. Because we spent the last three decades lifting restraints on the banking industry, the real estate market ran wild. Minority borrowers were most badly hurt.
Katz notes that as early as 1993 the Senate Banking Committee took testimony from elderly black borrowers who were pressured to take out subprime mortgages they couldn’t possibly repay. Congress responded by passing a law that affected just 1 percent of those subprime loans. In 1996, the Justice Department sued Long Beach Mortgage for charging black and Hispanic borrowers much higher loan fees than other equally qualified borrowers. And yet the firms that Long Beach spawned would go on to issue one-third of all subprime mortgages in 2005, the height of the housing bubble. A former Wells Fargo loan officer in Baltimore testified in a 2008 lawsuit that the bank had targeted African-American churchgoers and pushed them to take out subprime mortgages even when they qualified for less expensive prime loans.
There are reasons why black and white Americans see the world differently. We sometimes forget that Martin Luther King Jr.’s last crusade was the Poor People’s Campaign, his doomed struggle to address the scourges of “racism, poverty, militarism and materialism,” as he put it. In his final months, King challenged America to recognize that the “reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.” It remains as daunting a challenge as ever. Who wouldn’t prefer to argue about the content of Michael Jackson’s character?
On April 5, 1968, the day after King was assassinated, soldiers from the 6th Cavalry at Fort Meade, Maryland, entered Washington and drove to Fourteenth Street, which runs two blocks east of Mt. Pleasant. The soldiers jumped from their trucks just before sunset and converged on Fourteenth and U, the historic heart of black Washington and the epicenter of the riots that engulfed the city after King’s shooting. By the time they arrived, at least half of the 300 businesses along the Fourteenth Street strip had been looted or burned. Soon, two full battalions—more than a thousand men—were patrolling Fourteenth Street and 13,600 federal troops and D.C. Guardsmen had fanned out across Washington. It was the largest occupation of an American city by U.S. soldiers since the Civil War.
Not much got built around Fourteenth Street over the next 30 years. Mt. Pleasant suffered its own setback in May 1991, when the largest riot in D.C. since 1968 broke out on the neighborhood’s main drag. The police shot a Salvadoran man during a routine arrest and for three days rioters rampaged on Mt. Pleasant Street, setting fire to stores and cars. Fifty people were injured, 230 were arrested. That year, Washington was dubbed the murder capital of America when a record 482 people were killed in the District.
Over the years, however, the murder rate has steadily declined and development in the city has surged. In Columbia Heights, the neighborhood just east of Mt. Pleasant and just above Fourteenth and U, hundreds of high-end apartments and condos have been built. Even more are being erected down by U Street. And even though Mt. Pleasant may be filling with white couples and their kids, those pricey new developments around U are filled with owners who are young and black and successful.
Four decades after the 1968 riots, on the night Barack Obama was elected president, the people of Mt. Pleasant and Columbia Heights poured into the streets once again. Again they headed down to Fourteenth and U. This time no army was needed to restrain them. In Washington, as in other cities across this polyglot republic, people gathered in the streets as one. We hugged and we cried. We celebrated what we’d won together. And then we went back to our separate homes.