Three years ago, Lamar Grace left Detroit for the suburb of Southfield. He got a good deal — a 3,000-square-foot colonial that once was worth $220,000. In foreclosure, he paid $109,000.
The neighbors were not pleased.
"They don't want to live next door to ghetto folks," he says.
That his neighbors are black, like Grace, is immaterial. Many in the black middle class moved out of Detroit and settled in the northern suburbs years ago; now, due to foreclosures, it is easy to buy or rent houses on the cheap here.
Middle class blacks tend not to be penny-pinchers, so I suspect a fair number got caught up in cash-out refinancings during the subprime bubble.
The result has been a new, poorer wave of arrivals from the city, and growing tensions between established residents and the newcome ...
People like John Clanton, a retired auto worker, say the new arrivals have brought behavior more common in the inner city — increased trash, adults and children on the streets at all times of the night, a disregard for others' property.
"During the summer months, I sat in the garage and at 3 o'clock in the morning you see them walking up and the down the streets on their cell phones talking," Clanton says. "They pull up (in cars) in the middle of the street, and they'll hold a conversation. You can't get in your driveway. You blow the horn and they look back at you and keep on talking. That's all Detroit."
The tensions have not gone unnoticed by local officials.
"I've got people of color who don't want people of color to move into the city," says Southfield Police Chief Joseph Thomas, who is himself black. "It's not a black-white thing. This is a black-black thing. My six-figure blacks are very concerned about multiple-family, economically depressed people moving into rental homes and apartments, bringing in their bad behaviors."
For example, "They still think it's OK to play basketball at 3 o'clock in the morning; it's OK to play football in the streets when there's a car coming; it's OK to walk down the streets three abreast. That's unacceptable in this city."
Thomas has seen the desperation of the new arrivals. His officers, handling complaints, have found two or more families living in a single house, pooling their money for rent. They have "no food in the refrigerator and no furniture," Thomas says. "They can't afford the food. They can't afford the furniture." But they were eager to flee the gunfire of their old neighborhoods in Detroit.
The foreclosure crisis made it possible.
"We had a large number of people who have purchased homes from 2005 on, where the banks were very generous with their credit and they've allowed for people without documentation and income verification to borrow 95 to 100 percent of home values," Southfield Treasurer Irv Lowenberg says. "Many purchased homes when they had two jobs in the household and one of the jobs was lost.
"As values began dropping, people were looking around and saying 'Why should I stay and pay my mortgage when other people aren't?' They decided to hand the keys back to the bank."
Many of the foreclosed upon Southfield homes were going for $40,000 to $60,000.
... With so many empty houses available, rents also dipped by hundreds of dollars. Renters increased from about 13,100 in 2006 to 15,400 in 2009.
Now, suburbs closest to big cities are "bedeviled" by the same problems that helped spur urban flight decades ago, Schragger adds. "And you're seeing further flight out. Rising crime levels, some rising levels of disorder."
These were the things that prompted Richard Twiggs to leave Detroit 23 years ago for the safety, quiet and peace of mind Southfield offered.
"The reason suburbs are the way they are is because a certain element can't afford to live in your community," adds Twiggs, a 54-year-old printer. "If you have $300,000, $400,000, $500,000 homes you're relatively secure in the fact that (the homeowners) are people who can afford it.
"But when you have this crash, people who normally couldn't afford to live in Southfield are moving in. When you have a house for $9,900 on the corner over there — that just destroys my property."
The pride that comes with home ownership and a large financial investment in the property is missing, says Clanton, who lives across the street from Twiggs on Stahelin, about a half-mile north of Detroit. Back yards are deep and mostly tree-shaded. Sidewalks are few.
"I treasure what I bought," Clanton says. "I want to keep it, but I don't need somebody to come in and throw their garbage on mine. Why would they come and make our lives miserable because they don't care?"
Though they acknowledge they would lose money by selling their current homes, Clanton and Twiggs are contemplating moving further north.
So, middle class blacks are following middle class whites to the exurbs. But if gasoline goes to $10 per gallon, how will that work out?
In the very long run, lower class blacks will likely end up warehoused in small towns in the middle of nowhere. But, small towns have far fewer surplus resources to support ghetto blacks than do rich big cities like New York and Washington D.C. that are currently shoving them out. So, it's likely that small towns that tip black will be chewed up rapidly and then begin depopulating as the least dysfunctional poor blacks get out. (For example, the population of East St. Louis has dropped from 82,000 to 27,000.) So, there will be a lot of churn in rural America, which I guess is good for the real estate and homebuilding industries.
Sheryll Cashin, who teaches constitutional law and race and American law at Georgetown University, says it would be a shame if black flight from the city set off black flight from the near suburbs.
Some blacks just don't want to live near other blacks, she says: "There is classism within the black community. The foreclosure crisis may be accelerating it." But she says middle-class blacks, like middle-class whites, are also put off by behavior of impoverished blacks who "have developed their own culture, one that is very different from mainstream America."
Those who contemplate fleeing have fallen into what Cashin calls the "black middle-class dilemma."
"You have a choice of whether you are willing to be around your people or go 180 degrees in the other direction," she says. "To the higher income black people, if you don't want to love and help your lower-income black brethren, why would you expect white people to? If you can't do it, no one in society can do it. You can try to flee or you can be part of the solution."
Racism as an all-purpose explanation for black dysfunction is a two-edged sword for non-dysfunctional blacks. It justifies all sorts of affirmative action and social service jobs that middle class blacks benefit from more than underclass blacks. On the other hand, it also disarms middle class blacks in trying to shame underclass blacks into acting better. Ghetto blacks have assimilated the message of American society that the highest moral priority is the War on Racism. And underclass blacks believe that by Keepin' It Real (i.e., acting in a selfish, anti-social manner), they are fighting the good fight against Racism. Of course, this also makes them extremely obnoxious to middle class blacks who can't get away from them.
In Southfield, the middle class blacks are using the police power to be obnoxious back:
Southfield officials say one solution to changing neighborhoods is blight enforcement, other ordinances and costly fines. The idea, said the police chief, Thomas, is not to chase people away, but to help them assimilate.
Soon after Grace, the telephone company analyst, moved into his house, he was cited for parking a small trailer on the property and storing interior doors outside. These are things that would have drawn little notice in Detroit amid the crime and failing schools, he said.
He paid $400 in fines, got rid of the doors and put the trailer in paid storage.
... He was fined $200 for noxious weeds because the grass was too high and dandelions covered much of the front lawn.
Uh, oh. Better get too work on the dandelions on my lawn.
But, really, there's no end to the way nice things are nicer than not nice things. For example, I have one of the scruffier lawns on the block (and the lady with a similarly mediocre lawn across the street is 98 years old). But, instead of getting fined $200, I once got paid $2,000 to rent out my lawn for a day because a company shooting a beer commercial nearby needed to shoot 3 seconds of the Average American Beerdrinker's Lawn and my neighbors' Marathon-sodded lawns look like the Average American Pinot Noir Sipper's Lawn.
"It wouldn't happen in Detroit," he says. "Your property is pretty much your property. I think, here, they are going a little overboard."
For example, I haven't looked into it, but my vague impression is that over the last decade or so the LAPD has lessened the number of Mexicans who welcome in New Year's by shooting their guns in the air at midnight on January 1st. The method appears to have been to run PSA ads on TV telling people that it was against the law to shoot their guns into the air, and then killing one or two drunken shooters each New Year's Eve who wouldn't put their guns down.
For some reason, though, social scientists haven't been enthusiastic about studying this question.
Don't richwine me, bro!