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4 Let the Buyer Beware You cannot run a middle-­ class program in the ghetto. —Ohio congressman Thomas L. Ashley, 1972 In Philadelphia in 1970,an African American mother celebrated her move out of a public housing project and into a “brand-­ new” home of her own. She, like millions of parents across the country in the postwar period, invested in homeownership and the American dream with the expectation of raising her children in a good neighborhood and sending them to a better school than the ones she had attended in her youth. Her home, though, was not in one of the sprawling bucolic spaces of suburbia, where most of the postwar housing boom had taken place. For $12,000, she purchased a home in the city, one that was riddled with building code violations that included a chronically leaking roof and a flooded basement.1 In buying 78 Arch Street in Paterson, New Jersey, an African American mother of eight secured a home with “electrical deficiencies” and “large holes in the plaster” for $17,500.2 A welfare recipient, she rented out the first floor of her house to another poor family in order to offset the cost of her monthly mortgage. The two families used one “old cooking stove which has all the knobs missing and the oven door hanging on one hinge.”3 At 471 Graham Avenue in Paterson, a tavern was transformed into a living space even though it had been condemned by the city and boarded up for demolition . One month after it was determined unfit for human habitation, the building was purchased for $1,800 by a real estate speculator who made $450 worth of electrical repairs; four months later, it was sold again for $20,000 to 134 Let the Buyer Beware an unsuspecting African American family. An inspection of the house after the family moved in found that “in order to enter . . . the house, one has to go up two steps to the area where tables had been in the tavern. The walls are rough and uneven where fresh paint was placed over old paint without adequate preparation. The bedroom floors are warped and buckling. The front door has been moved from the center to the side of the home and a small bathroom-­ type window placed where the front door used to be.”4 Eddie Agnew fared no better in Chicago . “A couple of days after we moved in the boiler blew out. It was cold then and my kids were shivering in their bedroom. I had to keep running down in the basement and starting the pilot light again. The boiler just wasn’t throwing off any heat . . . [so] my kids were cold,” recalled Agnew, the African American owner of a Section 235 house in Chicago.5 He added that days after the boiler went out, the bathroom caved in completely while his family was watching television . Agnew noticed that the floor joists were charred and later learned that his house, weeks before he purchased it, had been in a fire. He lamented, “I got a raw deal.”6 In Berkeley and Oakland, California, an investigation found that dilapidated homes were sold to low-­income families for three and four times more than they were worth. The houses were “largely incapable of passing honest FHA inspection and certainly failed to meet minimum FHA standards.”7 When federal officials and representatives of the real estate industry spoke of the need to place more emphasis on the “existing” urban housing market, these houses were included. The change to FHA policy in 1967, then buttressed by the HUD Act in the following year, invigorated the real estate market in the urban core of American cities. The debates over the potential placement of low-­ income housing in the suburbs overshadowed the consequences of this development for those still in a desperate search for safe, sound, and affordable housing . This chapter brings that story out of the shadows as a critical corollary to the history of suburban resistance to poor and working-­class Black homeowners and renters in the 1970s. Doing so requires looking at the role of the FHA after it stopped redlining Black urban communities. Almost the entirety of that organization ’s written history has been based on its first thirty-­ three years, when its primary role was insuring the mortgages of new suburban properties. But the FHA played a central role in the federal government’s programs intended to transform low-­income...


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MARC Record
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