As a "white guy" developing houses in a 95% plus black neighborhood known by outsiders and residents alike as "the Black Grove," I'm confronted constantly with misperceptions of what Wind & Rain is attempting to do, and also with my own perceptions and misperceptions of the neighborhood and the people who live there.
The first time I attended the West Grove Tenants and Homeowners Association in 1995, to outline my plan to build houses for sale to renters wanting to become first time homebuyers, I was met with a mixture of skepticism and outright hostility from the all black membership, leavened with more than a bit of curiosity and friendliness. The negativity, I believe, came mostly from the fear that change, any change, could help "steal" the West Grove by encouraging gentrification, the "urban removal" that's taken place when outsiders decide to "improve" underdeveloped areas that would otherwise be prime places for people with more money to live.
The friendliness and curiosity came from those who were just interested in hearing from someone who, for whatever reason, was contemplating building something in their neighborhood. After introducing myself and thanking the Association for having me, I said: "Wind & Rain is a for-profit corporation, that is here to build houses because of the economic opportunity presented by this neighborhood, period. Developable lots can be bought here for as little as $6,300--I know because I've bought one, and two others with houses on them for slightly more. Less than two blocks away, on the northeast side of McDonald Street (the informal but nonetheless real dividing line between the "Black" and the "White" Groves), there are no lots for sale for less than $50,000. In my opinion, this difference in value makes it inevitable that the West Grove will attract developers. I am committed to building single family houses for sale to families already living and renting in this community. However, if I can't sell the houses I build, I will indeed rent them out until I can sell them, most probably for a lot more.
Everyone appreciates straight talk, and I got a round of applause when I sat down, but not before one of the younger members of the audience addressed to me several pointed, angry questions and statements, such as "Who invited you into our neighborhood?" and "No matter what you say, you are going to drive up the cost of housing in this neighborhood and force a lot of people to leave," and "You white people have always wanted our little piece of the Grove and just keep snooping around trying to get it."
To the first question, I answered "Nobody invited me, because under the private enterprise system we have in the United States you don't have to be invited." To the second statement, I said "You are exactly right. Whoever is smart enough to buy their own house under a program that means they can own for just about what they'd have to pay in rent, they will get to stay and watch their houses go up in value. As the neighborhood overall goes up in value, rents will also go up, and real estate taxes will start going up, too, just as in other neighborhoods when property values go up."
The last issue regarding "gentrification" was the hardest. If I'd wanted to start a firestorm, I could have said "You may be right there, too. There are a lot of white and hispanic real estate people, and lawyers and bankers, who if they dared say what they truly think, would say that the only thing economically wrong with the Black Grove is that there are too many poor black people in it. Otherwise, it's got location, location, location."
I know this type of thinking abounds because I've been in the real estate business in Miami since I quit being a tax lawyer back in 1982. I've presented warehouses located near black neighborhoods at $1.00 per sq. ft. and had businessmen say "no way, take me to West Dade" where the rents were 5 to10 times more for locations equally close to the airport. I know people who have bought houses in Miami Shores whose only real concern was how close they were to the "Black Shores," even though a similar house just a few blocks farther west could sell for less than half the price. And in the Grove, any longtime broker will know the old "wisdom" of not buying on a street named after a fruit tree (Loquat, Kumquat and Avocado all border the "Black Grove").
The real question, which I wasn't prepared to get into that night, is: Is such an attitude racist--or unjustified, to use a less loaded word? Arguing the private thoughts of both sides, I might postulate that many if not most blacks would say it is, because it assumes and by assuming, self-proves the hypothesis that proximity to black neighborhoods diminishes real estate values and the likelihood of business success. Many if not most whites would say it isn't because private enterprise, including a family's investment in its home, is based on risk and reward, and even a perceived greater degree of risk is a legitimate reason for moving away from black neighborhoods if there is no countervailing prospect of greater reward.
I think there's some truth to both sides of this question. I am not a moral relativist, but having built all of five houses now, I have seen my own thinking on racial issues change while realizing more than ever that one's perceptions are as much dependent on who you are as what your eyes see.
For example, it is my perception from my own experience in the West Grove that there is a tolerance by the residents of the petty drug dealing that goes on openly in the area. Because I would call the police and my city commissioners a dozen times a day if there was open drug dealing going on in my neighborhood, I assume that there must be a tolerance by the West Groveites of the drug dealers in their midst. But I do not know how many West Grove residents make such calls, or for how long they have been doing so and been ignored, or how many of the residents actually fear for their lives when they make such calls. I do not know how many residents have relatives or friends involved in this drug peddling. All I have seen with my own eyes is that it goes on openly, and in my real estate experience, I believe that it is one of the main factors depressing real estate values in the West Grove.
The other issue raised by the question of "What is racist?" is that of political correctness. For there to be a real dialogue on racial issues, people must be able to discuss racially related issues honestly and openly without fear of being either called racist or "Oreos". Can this be done? I don't know, but if you are patriotic, and care about the welfare of your fellow citizens, we have to try. And whites in particular can't be defeatist about this task by starting off thinking that social problems, when they include race, have already been "proven" to be unsolvable--"Look at the billions we've spent and where has it gotten us?"
The point is that "political correctness" leads many whites to tolerate the intolerable out of fear of being labeled as "racist" if they were to bring their true thoughts and feelings to the debate, much less their own persons into activism in their own "at large" communities. We can't just keep moving ever farther away from "bad neighborhoods."
So what's the solution to our "racial problems" in light of the fact that like Paul Newman in "Cool Hand Luke," we have such a profound "failure to communicate." I think we have to stick to a language that both blacks and whites understand, and that is the language of "what works." The language of "what works" is the language of common sense. It presumes that we have a common goal, which was set forth so well and so concisely in the Declaration of Independence: "Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." It takes human nature into account, that human beings almost always "look out first for Number One." It doesn't confuse failure, even failure stemming from good intentions, with success. And it is result oriented.
Wind & Rain is experimenting in the field of "the pursuit of human happiness," by reapplying in the Black Grove something that has worked almost everywhere else: the single family home, the nation's tried and true wealth-builder. These homes must have fixed monthly mortgage payments which are "the equivalent of rent" if the families in the neighborhood are to afford them. You achieve that by subsidizing the mortgage interest rate, not by building a cheap "shoebox" of a house that will never appreciate in value.
To get results, the houses have to be built first where they have a chance to thrive. You can't start building houses in the heart of the most depressed areas , which is where government always wants to go. Instead, you start at the edges and work inward. Similarly, you can't do "something for everybody"--you have to first help those who have proven through their own effort that they are ready to be homeowners. And finally, you have to find a way to do all this through profit driven, risk taking, reward seeking, private enterprise, which is the only engine big enough and efficient enough for the huge job ahead of us.