A few days ago, I'm walking to the Columbia City Station. Trains running slow again—every 15 minutes. It was a track issue last week. It's a platform issue this week and for a good part of September. Then something catches my eye. It is a sign planted in my neighbor's front yard. It reads: "Black Legacy Homeowners." On top of these words is a dormer roof with a red sun rising or (falling) behind it. The sign also has a web address. If you visit the site, you learn that Black Legacy Homeowners is a project that is "empowering and supporting black homeowners in Seattle." How? By helping "black homeowners achieve and sustain sustainable homeownership." But why do this at all? For this obvious reason: "[Black people] continue to face record displacement and gentrification." The project was started by Chukundi Salisbury, local activist, Seattle Parks project manager, and promoter.

I want to make a leap (maybe a "tiger's leap") back in time. It's now 2001. I have moved to a street in Columbia City. The racial composition of its renters and owners is roughly 25% Asian, 25% Latino, 25% white, 25% Black (Black American/Black African). This representation is not confined to my street but represents the composition of much of South Seattle. A fact that might seem hard to believe today is this: in 2001, Southeast Seattle was one of the most multiracial neighborhoods in the United States (24% Black, 29% white, 34% Asian, 6% Latino). A 2004 book by Georgetown University professor Sheryll Cashin, The Failures of Integration: How Race and Class Are Undermining the American Dream, even made an example of Southeast Seattle's diversity, which came, in her view, close to the American ideal. A neighborhood with, say, 50% Black and 50% white didn't, in Cashin's view, cut the mustard.  

Jump to today, the last Black American homeowner on the street has a "Black Legacy Homeowners" sign on their yard. The street is now predominantly white, and wealthy white people. The poor ones have almost entirely gone. Half the street's Asian families are also gone. I'm the only Black African on the street. When I moved here, there were lots of Asian, Black American, and East African restaurants. This is no longer the case. Indeed, we lost the Black institution, Silver Fork, to a gas station for what was once the only supermarket for miles around, Safeway. A strip mall (Rainier Mall) of Asian business, which included the superb dive bar the Boss, will, when a clean-up is finally done, be replaced by a massive apartment development. A beloved Vietnamese restaurant, Pho Hoa (cheap and for real), has been replaced by yet another bank. The song I'm singing is already so old. It's the song that has made Vanishing Seattle a popular cultural institution that now has art shows.

But what about the Legacy project? What can it do under these circumstances, which seem to be moving in one direction (Black homeowners still moving out of the city/whites moving in) with the force of a law of nature, like gravity?

Chukundi Salisbury to Seattle's legacy black newspaper, The Seattle Medium:

The overwhelming majority of guests at our monthly Black Legacy Homeowners Network meetings are legacy Black homeowners (Black families that have kept homes in Seattle for generations)... People [learn] a lot. We had people all the way from seniors just looking to learn more about their property taxes and senior tax exemptions, to people asking questions about ongoing projects they have and how those projects would be taxed.

The thing to appreciate here is the economic importance of homeownership for middle-class Americans as a whole. It is the only financial asset that's meaningfully accessible and exploitable to this class. Indeed, it defines this class. The middle class in America is not found in an income range ($43,000 to $130,000, for example), but in a contract called a mortgage. Much of white American prosperity is built on this one and often only asset, the ownership of a house loan. In this fact, we find an explanation for the popularity of the conservative program among white Americans. We also find an explanation for George W. Bush's determination to reconfigure the base of the Republican party by increasing homeownership in groups neglected by the New Deal programs and projects that consolidated white wealth in postwar suburbs. Bush knew that the GOP's viability in a democracy depended on the diversification of its base. This was the essence of his "ownership society." An increase in Black homeownership would surely increase among the GOP's appeal. The same was true for other minorities. It was a win-win situation.

But things did not go according to Bush's plan, thanks to the greed of banks like Washington Mutual. Subprime loans, which had their beginnings in the Clinton administration, accelerated when Bush gave banks the green light to vastly increase homeownership in POC communities. Banks basically transformed the loans into money: With an AAA credit rating, a home loan to a working-class Black family instantly became $140,000 dollars. An AAA rating is as liquid as a piece of paper (a debt) can get to the condition of money. The bomb packed with this greed-driven money illusion and the volatility of adjustable-rate mortgages exploded the world's financial markets in 2008. The US government, even under the first Black president, bailed out the banks, but not the millions of Black and Latino Americans who lost their homes, their only path to the middle class.

The next post of this three-part series (to appear next Monday, September 18) will show why gentrification is not possible without government-backed home loans or government backing in general.