Monday, February 22, 2016

Present-day housing discrimination and A Raisin in the Sun

This Feb. 20 New York Times article shows that discriminatory
challenges to homeownership persist even today.
In our just published volume, Using Informational Text to Teach A Raisin in the Sun (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016), we offer a unit based around the essential question: How Difficult Would It Really Have Been for the Youngers to Buy a Home in Clybourne Park?

This question is critical to understanding Lorraine Hansberry’s play. Without a sense of the barriers to home ownership for African-American families like the Youngers, students can’t fully appreciate the tremendous challenges and risks Mama faces in purchasing a house in Clybourne Park.

Think Walter’s liquor store venture was the most risky investment in the play? Far from it.

Mr. Lindner’s offensive offer to buy out the family on behalf of the neighborhood association is clearly the most innocuous possible outcome of Mama’s purchase.

Through several different informational texts, we offer students the opportunity to think through the other likely outcomes of Mama’s decision.

First and foremost, the Youngers would have surely faced violence in Clybourne Park. This idea is articulated in the play by the neighbor, Mrs. Johnson, who speculates that the Youngers will end up in the newspaper: “NEGROES INVADE CLYBOURNE PARK -- BOMBED.”

The play doesn’t actually touch on the legal and economic challenges a low-income African-American family like the Youngers would have encountered. Would their homeownership have been prevented by a restrictive covenant like the one Hansberry’s father faced – preventing ownership by African-American families (or by Jews and Asians)?

Or would the Youngers have lost their home and all of their investment funds to the greedy, discriminatory practices of the real estate industry? This outcome seems the most likely.

Beryl Satter’s Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America, which we excerpt in our book, outlines a practice called contract selling. Greedy speculators would sell homes to African-American families “on contract.” Because redlining meant African-American families could not access regular mortgages, people like the Youngers were forced into these contract sales. And the terms of the contracts were unbelievably exploitative. Miss one contract payment, for example, and the family would often lose the house and all they had invested in the property (any down payment as well as whatever additional payments they had made toward fulfilling the contract). Unlike with a mortgage, contract sellers could simply repossess the house. And these unscrupulous financiers often did just that, pocketing the family’s investment and then turning around, flipping the house, and ensnaring another unsuspecting or vulnerable family.

This story of contract selling is one of many hidden histories that underlie Hansberry’s text and belie the hint of a happy ending at the end of Raisin. In all likelihood, a family like the Youngers would have been caught short one month, and their entire investment would have been forfeit.

Think this practice is something from the deep, dark American past? It isn’t.

Just this week The New York Times offered a front-page story, “High-Risk Deals on Shabby Homes Ensnare Buyers,” that makes clear that this kind of unsavory practice is thriving at this very moment throughout the U.S. In Akron, Ohio (the focus of the article), and elsewhere, “deep-pocketed investors” have bought up many of the derelict houses produced by the recent housing collapse. These same financiers in turn offer these homes to vulnerable buyers, sometimes for “four times the price” of the initial sale. And because the mortgage industry has retreated from high-risk sales, vulnerable buyers can only afford to buy these homes “on an installment plan, with a high-interest, long-term loan called a contract for deed.”

As Matthew Goldstein and Alexandra Stevenson write in The Times, these transactions “can become a money trap that ends with a quick eviction by the seller, who can flip the home again.” Déjà vu.

Are your students struggling to see why a play like Raisin matters?

Use this fascinating article in The Times or pull the piece together with the other texts we offer in Using Informational Text to Teach A Raisin in the Sun to unpack for students both what an enormous challenge it would have been for Mama to buy and actually hold onto that house in Clybourne Park and how greedy financiers then and now continue to exploit vulnerable home buyers who are trying to grab hold of that ultimate symbol of the American dream: a home of one’s own.

Better yet, collaborate with a social studies or financial literacy teacher so that your students can think through the ways in which home ownership in America has and continues to be the site of troubling and persistent economic exploitation.

Not sure how to get started on this kind of cross-disciplinary collaboration? Check out our Connecting Across Disciplines: Collaborating with Informational Text (Rowman and Littlefield, 2016).

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