Sunday evening, I had the opportunity to watch the documentary Owned: A Tale of Two Americas, which features Baltimore and local voices and perspectives, including local house flipper Greg Butler, Morgan State University professor and writer Lawrence Brown, and diversity consultant and An End to Ignorance – Circle of Voices founder JC Faulk. The film concisely yet powerfully challenges the narrative that the housing market in the U.S. is back on the upswing post-recession and that development patterns are the consequence of consumer personal preference. It shows that post-World War II housing policies are the result of the federal government and real estate industries purposely promoting segregation in America.
This very discriminatory history began right here in Baltimore. In 1910, as a reaction to African-American lawyer W. Ashbie Hawkins buying a rowhome in a wealthy neighborhood, the city enacted laws that mandated racial segregation by block. While this was ruled illegal by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1917 for governments to enact, it was not made illegal for the private sector to enact. As a result, communities and their developers created neighborhood covenants which prohibited the sale of houses to black and Jewish people. After the National Housing Act of 1934 was passed, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation created maps for the Federal Home Loan Bank Board where they drew red lines to demarcate which neighborhoods were desirable and undesirable to issue loans. The neighborhoods marked as declining and risky were mostly older housing stock and black neighborhoods. These maps were used to deny black people loans and mortgages for decades.
The film touches briefly on the above history but goes into depth after WWII, when the VA home loan program, which guaranteed mortgages for World War II veterans through the GI bill. However, in combination with redlining and neighborhood covenants, these loans were only available to white Americans. A black veteran not only couldn’t get a loan to purchase a house in his “declining” community, but was restricted by developers from purchasing a house in most of the new suburbs popping up all over America. This policy kept black Americans from obtaining no (or low) money down mortgages and kept them isolated to decaying neighborhoods and gave white Americans systemic advantages that helped them obtain wealth through housing. This inequality became more obvious as housing values skyrocketed in value over the course of several decades and became seen as a asset first and a place to live second.
While the Fair Housing Act was passed by President Johnson over two decades later in 1968 to ensure that all Americans, regardless of race, would have fair access to housing, it wasn’t enforced. It wasn’t until President Obama passed a provision to the act in 2015 (called Affirmatively Affirming Fair Housing) that cities and towns receiving federal funding were required to analyze housing occupancy patterns and barriers and implement a plan to reduce disparities. Even today, landlords can still legally refuse to accept section 8 housing vouchers, disproportionately keeping black families from renting in many suburbs. Also, the Trump administration has removed the deadline and urgency for cities to comply to Obama’s provision.
This documentary isn’t just a straight history lesson, but weaves in the stories of real people who have been affected by these housing policies over the past several decades. The most striking juxtaposition is against a Levittown resident (and retired NYC officer) and Baltimore resident Greg Butler. The retired officer’s family moved to Levittown when he was a child where he grew up in one house and became very connected to the community there. He hates how William Levitt (the developer) excluded black people and how gentrification in Brooklyn has transformed and displaced residents of the neighborhood where he spent his earliest years. Greg Butler grew up moving a uncountable number of times from apartment to apartment and how he and his friends saw it as a treasure hunt to explore all of the abandoned homes. It wasn’t until he was an adult when he realized why he didn’t have one stable place to call home and why his neighborhood struggled, and the anger this caused in himself and others around him.
Butler’s story connects the dots between housing policy, being stuck in disparate conditions, and why the uprising happened after Freddie Gray’s death – when you don’t own a home and have an almost impossible chance to become a homeowner due to policies stacked against you and little chance of renting in a nicer area, you become hopeless and angry. Freddie Gray’s death was the last straw and people couldn’t contain their anger anymore. They burned down their own communities because they weren’t really theirs to begin with.
As a person who has struggled with depression and previously seriously contemplated suicide, I absolutely get it. Why do people commit suicide when as humans we have a biological imperative to stay alive? It’s because people become absolutely hopeless and think the best solution and only way out is to end their life. Why do people burn down their communities? They are hopeless and figure the best solution and only way out is to effectively end it – burn it down.
The other key story being told in the film is how the housing bubble and the recession affected white people, including the white working class, and how ten years later things haven’t recovered because basing the health of the economy on housing is dangerous and unstable. From the 1950s on, people were sold on the idea that bigger is better and that the more house and land you own the more value you have. During this time, mortgage debt to income ratio exponentially increased, and houses became an investment that needed to be protected at all costs, despite the fact that prior to WWII houses were seen as a commodity that depreciated over time because they don’t last forever and eventually need costly repairs.
New policies in the 1990s loosened lending regulations, and mortgage brokers encouraged people to buy houses they couldn’t afford with little to no down payment and take out second mortgages on houses they already owned because “the value of houses is only going up, up, up!” House flipping (and reality shows on the topic) became the new national obsession. While this opened up home-ownership to working class and middle class people, banks gave them interest-only mortgages at the max limit of what they could pay per month without any consideration of what would happen once interest rates rose. In fall 2008, the financial sector melted down after several things happened: interest rates rose, people couldn’t afford payments, demand for housing fell so they couldn’t sell them, banks ended up in financial trouble, and the inter-connectivity of the market caused everything to collapse. This caused companies to go out of business, meaning people loss their jobs and were less able to pay their mortgages, spiking foreclosures.
Ten years later, the lucky people who didn’t face foreclosure are stuck paying mortgages on houses worth much less than their early 2000s price tag. Living wage jobs haven’t returned to working class communities. Yet, the economy is said to be booming – for who? The banks that the government bailed out, that’s who. In the end, everyone else has lost, yet we are blaming each other instead of the real culprits – the government and real estate industries.
I highly recommend this film because it shows the truth to the inequality our country’s housing policies have created and how in our two Americas we have more in common than we realize. It creates empathy for what “the other side” is going through and what they’re feeling and how they got where they are. My only complaint is that it doesn’t offer any solutions for the viewer or even raise questions for the viewer to think about. For that reason, it is a film that works better in a group setting where people can discuss their reactions and ideas after viewing it. However, the film beautifully condenses material that I’ve picked up from reading several books in the course of just an hour and a half, making it incredibly accessible to the population at large. While the film doesn’t directly touch on homelessness, it details key policies that have influenced who is more like to become homeless and why. Homelessness has disproportionally affected black people, and homelessness spiked during and after the recession due to the very policies discussed in the film.
If you get the chance to see the film, do it! I’ve been told that the film should be at the Parkway Theater on North Avenue by the end of the year. When I find out more information, I’ll advertise it.
- Not in my Neighborhood: How Bigotry Shaped a Great American City by Antero Pietila
- The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein
- The Strong Towns Website
- Lawrence Brown’s blog
Disclaimer: I am shown in the film a couple of times, but I had zero involvement in the filmmaking process. I am also friends with JC Faulk and Lawrence Brown, but would like to think that I’d still post a review even if I didn’t like the film.