Where the Waters Still Rise

It’s become so common to think of the Great Recession as an event demarcated by rising and (perhaps now) falling unemployment rates that we sometimes have to be reminded that it has not been a “cyclical” phenomenon for many people, but a deep and seemingly irreversible plunge out of the middle class. At TAP, Monica Potts profiles PG County Maryland as a place deeply affected by the housing bubble and subsequent crash in ways that may not be overcome for a long time:

Just from 1995 to 2004, black homeownership rates nationwide rose 6.5 percentage points, reaching a height of 49 percent in 2005. But those gains were almost entirely erased as the Great Recession began in 2008, with black homeownership rates dipping to 45 percent last year and continuing to fall. Nowhere is that more dramatically illustrated than in the stretch of suburbia that straddles the Beltway. At the height of the crisis, in 2009, the foreclosure rate in Prince George’s County was 4.19 percent, compared to 1.87 percent in Maryland and 2.21 percent in the nation as a whole.

Even families who aren’t losing their homes have seen values drop, making it more difficult to get loans to finance their children’s education or their retirement. Mosi Harrington, the former executive director of the Housing Initiative Partnership, a Maryland nonprofit that helps people hold on to their homes, says declining home prices are particularly problematic for African Americans because they have inherited less than their white counterparts. “In your minority communities, wealth is not very deep,” she says. “There’s no family wealth to fall back on in hard times.” Most middle-class families hold all of their wealth in their homes, and that’s especially true for the median black family—the amount they hold in stocks is zero. That means the housing crisis has wiped out an entire generation of black wealth

“Wiped out” is a strong, unamibiguous, emotional term, connoting not a “recession” or “tough times” or “adversity, but a calamity that scars not just individuals but entire communities–even nations–for a long time. It’s very important, morally and politically, that we don’t ignore or forget that even if economic conditions continue to get better.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.