The concept behind W & R is comprised of several simple ideas: Anybody who is working and trying to better themselves deserves a chance at the American Dream of owning their own home. And, at least in South Florida, where there are plenty of vacant lots going begging, that "home"should be a single family detached house where the family owns their own piece of dirt. Furthermore the house needs to be good enough so that over time it will appreciate in value. And finally, the mortgage "package" put together for the new homeowner has to be approximately the equivalent of rent.
- A Little History: Bill Levitt and the Vets
Why the single family home? Because it is tried and true. It's what built the American middle class. Beginning with William J. Levitt, who in 1949 bought a 1,500 acre potato field in Long Island's Nassau County upon which he invented the first Levittown (which now, unfortunately, has taken on a perjorative meaning), the single family home has provided the first wealth for just about every middle class family in the country. This is because the single family home functions on several levels. It provides shelter. It provides the pride of ownership. It provides a sense of community and neighborhood because its value, present and future, depends on its neighbors. It provides a forced savings account, because of the paydown of the mortgage. And the mortgage itself requires and therefore generates discipline. And, in the end, it provides wealth to the family who owns it because, eventually, the mortgage is paid off and a family that started off asset less has joined the middle class.
Levitt saw all this plus a way to make a few millions for himself. The vets coming back from WWII were generally poor and in need of homes for their families. Thank god Levitt didn't come up with the idea of "Section 8" subscribed rental housing instead! The GI Bill provided the financing vehicle and Levitt provided the homes and the rest is history. But somewhere between the GI Bill and the Great Society, and between helping white vets and "helping" minority working class folks, the country took a wrong turn which we've been paying for ever since, in higher crime, higher dependency, increased racial tension and poverty. That wrong turn was the half-baked idea of "affordable housing"--meaning apartments instead of houses, rent instead of ownership.
- A Step in The Wrong Direction
Why did this change in direction occur? Was it racism? Shortsightedness? Lack of resources? Or lack of will? Why has government basically spent the last forty years building, and through its policies encouraging others to build, at great expense, the wrong type of shelter for the bulk of the families that need it? I think it comes down to something that my father used to say, and which I never quite understood until now: "Something for everybody means nothing for anybody." The politicians basically saw a huge need for housing and said to themselves "We can build apartments for more people a lot faster and cheaper than we can single family homes. Everybody will get a roof over their head." Something for everybody. There were also many civic minded caring citizens who found it intolerable that families were without roofs over their heads and thought this was the way to provide them with shelter.
Originally I believe builders of the HUD apartment buildings throughout the black communities thought they were providing merely "temporary" homes--way stations for families on their way to something better--instead of horribly permanent residences for generations of the same families. If these apartment buildings were "good" for the families living there nobody would care that they are "permanent," least of all the families themselves. I have spoken personally with residents of HUD apartments and by and large the people I spoke to wanted out, even if it was to "Section 8" rental subsidized apartments. But no one wants not to have any roof at all over one's head, and it has always been considered more equitable and economical to build as many units as possible. Hence the explosion of government apartment units over the years--even though the most notorious in places like Chicago and Baltimore are now being razed because of the pathological environment created in them.
I always like to ask people what they think the United States would be like today if for every four of the thousands, perhaps millions of apartment units that the government has built, or has encouraged the private sector to build through its various programs such as Section 8, it had instead built or induced the building of one single family house to be owned by the family living in it. Most people, black and white, say "I wish to God it had" although a few reflect and say that one family would be much better off while three
others would be homeless.
But is that really the case? If the single family home creates wealth by its very nature, wouldn't the country be wealthier and better able to build more houses? Furthermore, if the single family home tends to create good citizens and good neighborhoods under the "stake in society" theory, would not society as a whole have less social costs, measurable in actual dollars and cents, from crime and poverty? And what about government's ongoing maintenance cost of apartments versus the self-maintenance of homeownership? In other words, while apartments may cost less than houses to build, don't these other costs have to be included? Of course they do and should be. In hindsight, the massive apartment building programs should never have been undertaken. Apartments have their place, but only for those sections of the populace who by their nature may not want or who can't undertake the responsibilities of ownership--the elderly, the disabled, and young people who aren't sure where they want to live because of jobs, marital status or just inclination. Providing apartments for everyone else who can't, without assistance, buy a house has truly been a case of "Something for everybody' turning out to be "nothing for nobody."
- "What are YOU doing here, Mr. White Man?"
As a "white guy" developing houses in a 95% plus black neighborhood, I'm confronted constantly with misperceptions of what W&R and I are attempting to do, and also with my own perceptions and (undoubtedly) misperceptions of the people I'm dealing with and into whose neighborhood I've come. I remember the first time I attended the West Grove Tenants and Homeowners Association, prior to building the first house, and spoke of my plans to build houses for sale to first time homebuyers, I was met with a mixture of skepticism, and outright hostility from the all black membership, leavened with a bit of curiosity and friendliness. The skepticism came from the countless times that white people have come to the area and made promises that were not kept. The hostility came, I believe, not so much from the color of my skin per se, but from the fear that what I was doing would help "steal" the West Grove by encouraging gentrification, the "urban removal" that's taken place when whites 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 overall friendly and curious, and interested in at least hearing from someone interested for whatever reason in their neighborhood. Because I'd carefully thought out much of W &R's philosophy long before the meeting (and written it all down in W &R Parts I, II and III), I started off on the right foot rather than the wrong one. I said, after introducing myself and thanking them for having me (politeness is crucial in any forum, especially, I think, in initial black-white dialogues), that "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 dividing line between the "Black" and the "White" Grove, 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, and you should be glad you got me rather than someone else. Why? Because I am committed to building single family houses for sale to families already living and renting in this community. Don't get me wrong. 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, to the "yuppies" you already see buying the new condos now being built all along the fringes of your neighborhood."
This little speech got me a full hearing, and also a round of applause at the end, but not before one of the younger hostile women in the audience asked me a bunch of pointed and angry questions, 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 question 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. Most of the remaining renters will either have to pay a lot more rent or eventually be forced to leave and go to a less desirable neighborhood. And yes, I expect real estate taxes to start going up too, just as they do in other neighborhoods when property values go up."
The last question I retreated somewhat from my "just be as honest as you can" tack, because I also believe that discretion can indeed be the better part of valor. If I'd wanted to start a firestorm, I would have said "You're 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 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 to even 10 times more for locations equally close to the airport. I know of friends 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 Heart of The Matter: Race
The true question, which I didn't want or dare to get into that night, is "Are such attitudes racist?" And if so, isn't it equally racist to say "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; and 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.
There are a couple of issues raised by the question of what is racist. One is that for either group to say what most people of the other group would say or think is a grand leap of egocentrism because, for a fact, most have not walked a mile in the other's shoes. As I've gotten to be pegged as the "white expert" on the Black Grove, I try to be on guard at all times against the all-too-tempting ego trip of "explaining" what black people think and feel. I know that there is a lot of justified anger from black people against whites who say they "know how black people feel." I believe that unless you're black, you can never know for sure how "most" black people feel about anything, and you probably miss the boat on even guessing how "some" black people feel. So no one from either group should ever venture farther than saying what he or she as a human being has experienced and therefore perceives to be the reality of a particular situation. That's plenty adventurous, in my opinion, for any multi-racial discussion in today's United States.
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 hundred times a day if there was open drug dealing going on in my neighborhood, until I got results, 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. (Since this was written, under the leadership of Dr. David White of the West Coconut Grove Homeowners and Tenants Association, the West Grove has gotten the City of Miami Police to initiate the most comprehensive and ongoing crackdown on drug dealing in West Grove history).
- Political Correctness and The Death of Discourse
The obvious having been said, 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, such a dialogue will depend on white people in particular being able to discuss issue honestly without having to be "politically correct." This is no simple task to accomplish. If you are educated, patriotic, care about the welfare of your fellow citizens, and especially if you have childrenwho will be here when you're gone, you have to be concerned about the growing gap in this country between the haves and have nots, with the increase in violent crime, and the decrease in educational achievement. If you add "white" to the qualifiers above, you probably also have to be concerned when you read that "Ebonics" is considered by some very thoughtful black educators to be a possible solution to the appalling under achievement by Oakland black children in reading skills. You probably believe that phasing out of the "welfare system" is a long overdue and needs to be abolished, even if you haven't decided how long you think the abolishing should take, or how big a "safety net" should remain. Your emotions may have you believe, perhaps even correctly I don't know, that a "much higher than proportional" number of violent crimes are committed by young black males even while your mind tells you that the problem is violent crime, not violent crime committed by any particular group.
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. And so they settle for walling in their communities, sending their kids to private schools, and moving ever farther away from "bad neighborhoods." I don't have children, but if I did the knowledge that so many educated, wealthy, talented and otherwise dynamic white people throw up their hands and say "What can you do?" when confronted with problems in any way connected with race would make me absolutely terrified for my children's future in this country.
So what's the solution to our "racial problem" in light of the fact that our first obstacle is the same one that confronted Cool Hand Luke , 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.
- Let's Talk The Language of "What Works"
In the Miami Herald, page A1, of Friday June 13, 1997 ( a bad omen in this case, I think) , Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas announced a plan to build 200 homes on lots that "have either been seized by the County through foreclosure or donated by private investors" in Liberty City and Overtown. The houses would be 3 bedroom, 2 bath homes "which sell for about $50,000...The progam is open to families who earn $20,000 or less annually, who will be chosen through a lottery." According to the article, where these houses will be built, " In Liberty City, more than half of the homes are occupied by renters... In Overtown, that figure was 91 percent, compared to a county wide rate of 54 percent." In announcing the project, Penelas said "We all know the benefits of homeownership. It builds communities and stabilizes neighborhoods."
Time will tell if Mayor Penelas if Mayor Penelas achieves these results--and we judge should his success by his results, not by his intentions, which I applaud. (Note: As of June 11, 2000, only one house has been built under the Mayor's intiative). But lets look at what this proposed project is going to do, and which I think it is based on faulty reasoning in light of what we already know from 40 terrible years of experience:
- By making the project a "government project," it perpetuates the message that private, for profit enterprise won't work in black neighborhoods. If instead of trumpeting that these proposed houses will each cost "about $50,000", which is the same "hard cost" of Wind & Rain's houses, he had instead told the whole truth that, in addition, the impact fees and water hook-up charges would all be waived, and that architectural and engineering costs were not included, and that the County attorney's office was donating all the legal services, and that the project would be self-insured by the County, and that no financing or interests costs were included, so that the real cost to the taxpayers of building the homes would exceed $100,000, even without cost overruns, then it might have been a considerably harder "sell." Just as you can't get something for nothing, you can't build a whole 3 BR/2BA house for half of what one actually costs, even (or espcially) if you're the government.
- The project may be trying to help the "wrong" neighborhoods. As the Urban Land Institute Research Paper Infill Housing: Opportunities and strategies for Inner-City Neighborhoods, June 1996, states: "...in economically desirable areas, infill housing will take place spontaneously. In depressed areas, infill development cannot begin in the the middle of the neighborhood; it must start at the edges and work in." This is crucial if the project is to be a success. Just judging from the rental percentages given in the article, one can predict immediately that the houses built in Liberty City will have a much greater chance to appreciate in value than the ones built in Overtown. But I'd also like to know how many churches and YMCA's are in the two neighborhoods, how many parks,, and whether there are schools that are doing the job. As the ULI study found, "A declining educational system will overwhelm anything real estate can do." Remember, we are going to judge this project by its results, not by its intentions. If half of the houses have a good chance to succeed for their owners because of their location, and the other half are doomed to failure for the same reason, this must be taken into account in the planning. Does it mean you don't build at all in Overtown? Probably not, but it definitely does mean that you start in Overtown "on the edges" where there are still churches and schools that are functioning. You don't build at "ground zero", which is usually exactly where government wants to start on the "something for everybody" theory.
- The project may be trying to help the "wrong" people. This is the most politically sensitive issue, and also the most crucial to the success of the project, and one which the County avoids by saying there'll be a lottery for families who earn less than $20,000 annually. Who can criticize that? It's fair and it helps poor families. Something for everybody. But again, this project is going to be judged by its results at the end, not its intentions at the beginning. The County's plan is sewing the seeds of its own failure. Let's assume we have a family, renting in a Section 8 or HUD apartment where the breadwinner is busting his or her hump to make $22,000. Are you going to tell that family that they have to make $2,000 less to get out of the rent trap? And if they see another family, that hasn't tried as hard or as long, awarded a home for which they can't even apply, what kind of message does that send as to how "the government" values trying and hardwork? Why is this message only sent over and over in black neighborhoods? And what has been, at least to some degree, the result of this message having been sent over and over throughout the years? I had the impossible job of explaining to my fourth homebuyer, why his sister, who had bought my third home, had a lower mortgage payment than he had for an identical house. I had to tell him if he only worked one full time job instead of two his mortgage payment could have been the same as hers. Go figure.
- Finally, time will tell if the houses that are proposed to be built will appreciate in value. I do believe with Mayor Penelas that homeownership is almost magical in its ability to "build communities and stabilize neighborhoods," but only if those homes appreciate over time, just as in white neighborhoods they have been the single greatest wealth producer. Penelas' homes will have a monthly mortgage payment of $347, which I'm sure is the same as rent or lower. The families will be buying the houses for $50,000, approximately half of what it costs to build them. The families who live there will treasure them, right? I hope so.
- The True Test: The Home as Wealth Builder
I know the families I have built homes for treasure their homes. But long term, the proof of success, mine and theirs, will be whether those houses I built go up in value. The families have to help, by reporting crime and trash dumping, by protesting the electric company's over aggressive trimming of their trees, by supporting their neighborhood Homeowners Association, and by maintaining their homes. But still, the house I built for each of them has to be built and designed well enough, and built in a healthy enough neighborhood to begin with, that it has a chance to go up in value over time. I believe my houses will stand the test of time because it is my reputation that is riding on them. I'm not sure that "the government" can ever look at each house like that. I am willing to be judged by the results of my efforts. In fact, the "marketplace" will determine if I'm even in the homebuilding business by these same results. Other than the "soft" second mortgage for my homebuyers, Wind & Rain's houses have been built without one single cent of taxpayer money, not one "handout", not one special favor. Wind & Rain's results, whatever they may be over time, will be based in economic reality, not good intentions.