Benefiting from racial covenants several generations later

One white Chicago resident describes how racial covenants contributed to his ability to purchase a home in the city:

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I think that pride in accomplishment is healthy, but there’s another sense to my pride in homeownership that is, or was, harmful. It’s painful to admit this, but I think I had an unconscious sense that by navigating all the hurdles to home ownership, I proved myself to be “deserving.” That I am, perhaps, more clever, harder-working, more reliable, and somehow more “worthy” of owning my own home than others who haven’t accomplished that.

And to be clear, I knew that my ability to buy a house was, in part, the result of privilege, related to historical and ongoing racism. I have known for years, in an abstract, intellectual way, that my family had pathways to middle-class stability that were not available to others. That inequity was intentional, and racist. My family is white, and I know my grandparents benefited from subsidized mortgages and education benefits that were part of the GI Bill of Rights, which was structured in a way to exclude African Americans and other non-whites. I knew racial discrimination affected who gets jobs, compensation, or who gets mortgage loans.

But recently, when I became aware of an ongoing project by my WBEZ colleague Natalie Moore, my feelings about my house, and particularly that pride in homeownership, became more complicated. Natalie has been researching racially restrictive housing covenants in Chicago, and inviting WBEZ listeners to research their own home, to see if it was ever subject to racially restrictive covenants. Racial deeds and covenants have been getting a lot of attention recently, as more Americans are coming to understand this dimension of American racism. These deeds and covenants, which in most cases restricted white sellers to sell only to white buyers, enforced segregation, excluding millions of African Americans from living in certain neighborhoods. That exclusion limited their ability to access home ownership and the attendant opportunity to build wealth…

When I was seeking to purchase my house in McKinley Park, Linda and my father helped me with a gift that allowed me to afford the downpayment. It was a gift they may not have been able to make without the inheritance from Linda’s parents, which in turn began with her grandfather’s development that excluded Black people and Jews. The gift I received wasn’t enormous, but without it, I would have had to save for at least another year and may have missed the opportunity to buy into my neighborhood at a low cost, as prices are rising.

The Matthew Effect in action: homeownership and wealth begets more homeownership and wealth. More broadly, if you have wealth it can be invested to create more wealth while it can be difficult to start on a path to wealth with little or none to start with.

Even as Americans connect homeownership to responsible homeowners and hard work, those are not the only factors involved. Others include access to capital both for a down payment and for a mortgage and access to particular residential units and communities (whether through formal or informal reactions). And because homes can be expensive and institutions and communities can change slowly, it takes time to acknowledge, address, and change past patterns.

Illinois residents can now remove racial covenants from their deeds but this does not mean there is not more to do to address residential segregation and access to housing.

The downsides to older housing

A planner and researcher argues older homes on the whole should not be celebrated and that the United States should instead focus on building newer, better housing:

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In housing circles, one hears a lot of self-righteous discussion about the need for more preservation. And many American homes doubtless deserve to stick around. But the truth is that we fetishize old homes. Whatever your aesthetic preferences, new construction is better on nearly every conceivable measure, and if we want to ensure universal access to decent housing, we should be building a lot more of it…

In the meantime, we’re stuck with a lot of old housing that, to put it bluntly, just kind of sucks. A stately Victorian manor in the Berkshires is one thing. But if you live in a Boston triple-decker, a kit-built San Jose bungalow, or a Chicago greystone, your home is the cheap housing of generations past. These structures were built to last a half century—at most, with diligent maintenance—at which point the developers understood they would require substantial rehabilitation. Generally speaking, however, the maintenance hasn’t been diligent, the rehabilitation isn’t forthcoming, and any form of redevelopment is illegal thanks to overzealous zoning.

You might think uneven floors or steep stairwells have “character.” You’ll get no argument here. But more often than not, old housing is simply less safe…

The fact is that those much-lamented cookie-cutter five-over-one apartment buildings cropping up across the U.S. solve the problems of old housing and then some. Modern building codes require sprinkler systems and elevators, and they disallow lead paint. New buildings rarely burn down, rarely poison their residents, and nearly always include at least one or two units designed to accommodate people in wheelchairs.

And despite what old-home snobs may believe, new housing is also just plain nice to live in—in many ways an objective improvement on what came before.

New housing does indeed have features, including aesthetic choices and functionality, that often better suit current users. Safety can be a persuasive argument. And there certainly is a need for more housing units in many locations.

However, continuing to use, rehabbing or renovating, and preserving housing can sometimes address these concerns and provide continuity in structure and character. We often tie concepts like stability, tradition, and permanence to housing units, even if they are not the best construction or something better comes along later.

What would be interesting to see is if one American city or region was willing to commit to building new housing in the way described in this piece. If there is there is the will and resources to construct plentiful, attractive, and safe new housing and not fix up or save older homes, what would happen?How would it transform everyday life and society?

One aspect of this debate that I wondered about: is it greener to build a lot more new housing or to rehab existing housing?

Great Quotes in Homeownership #4: Obama in 2013

Speaking at a Arizona high school in August 2013, President Obama both addressed specific policies he hoped Congress would pass regarding homeownership as well as the dream of middle-class homeownership. Here is part of the speech connecting middle-class aspirations and homeownership:

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What we want to do is put forward ideas that will help millions of responsible, middle-class homeowners who still need relief.  And we want to help hardworking Americans who dream of owning their own home fair and square, have a down payment, are willing to make those payments, understand that owning a home requires responsibility.  And there are some immediate actions we could take right now that would help on that front, that would make a difference.  So let me just list a couple of them…

So I want to be honest with you.  No program or policy is going to solve all the problems in a multi-trillion dollar housing market.  The housing bubble went up so high, the heights it reached before it burst were so unsustainable, that we knew it was going to take some time for us to fully recover.  But if we take the steps that I talked about today, then I know we will restore not just our home values, but also our common values.  We’ll make owning a home a symbol of responsibility, not speculation — a source of security for generations to come, just like it was for my grandparents.  I want it to be just like that for all the young people who are here today and their children and their grandchildren.  (Applause.)

These sections echo common themes of how the American public often thinks about housing:

  1. Homeownership is a symbol of successful hard work and responsibility. Put it in the time and effort and it should lead to a home.
  2. Systems and particular actors can conspire against possible homeowners – financial speculators, irresponsible people – but the government should be in the business of helping people achieve homeownership.
  3. Homeownership is a goal across American generations, from grandparents to current adults to future children.
  4. The middle class and homeownership are intertwined.

Even as President Obama sought specific actions, he appealed to cultural goals and narratives very familiar in American life.

(This is part of a very occasional series of quotes about homeownership. See #1 featuring William Levitt, #2 featuring Herbert Hoover, and #3 involving George W. Bush.)

Making clear where HGTV shows are filmed

Some HGTV shows are very clear about where they are located. As two examples, Chip and Joanna Gaines are based in Waco and have built a local empire through Fixer Upper while House Hunters shows multiple shots of the local community and region.

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But, other shows say less about their filming location. One such show is Love It or List It. While this is old news to regular viewers, this article discusses the switch in filming locations:

Like Renovation Island, Love It or List It actually began as a Canadian series, and filming took place in Ontario. Despite where it was shot, the home renovation series became a popular franchise on HGTV in the United States. As such, in 2014, after filming in Ontario for six years, hosts Hilary Farr and David Visentin, along with the crew, picked up and headed to North Carolina to start fresh in a new city…

And, if in doing so you find that you love the area as much as the homes being showcased, know that you can experience it for yourself by booking a trip to the Tar Heel state — specifically the Triangle and greater Raleigh-Durham area.

One could argue this does not matter: the real show involves Hilary, David, and the interior of individual properties. The show tends to provide a few aerial views of the properties in question and there might be some discussion of the location of the home in relation to workplaces or destinations. Does it matter if the homes are in Ontario or in North Carolina? Most of the action and filming takes place inside.

On the other hand, the community context matters a lot. Even if the show focuses on individual properties, the place matters for at least a few reasons:

  1. House architecture and style depends on what happens in particular places. The design of homes in North Carolina is quite different from Ontario. Different builders and developers operate in each place.
  2. Different logics apply in different places regarding where people want to locate. Do people in older Toronto and suburban neighborhoods see locations in the same way as Americans in sprawling contexts? Maybe, maybe not.
  3. What looks like normal life differs by place. In years of showing the same kinds of places on a TV show, do viewers accept it as how life works? Any TV show can project stability with consistent characters and story lines. But, see enough single-family homes in tree-lined neighborhoods only accessible by cars – and this is the primary dwelling on HGTV – and it can appear to be the default.

While not all HGTV shows ignore the community or region, I would be interested in more of their shows seriously incorporating place into their narratives about homes.

How effective are religious and political billboards?

On a recent long drive, I noticed two additional types of billboards compared to the typical ones selling good and/or services: religious billboards and political billboards. These do not comprise a majority of billboards in my observations – or even a significant minority – but there were at least a few. Such efforts raise several questions for me:

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  1. Do religious and political billboards reach a large audience compared to other forms of media advertising? Compared to some other forms of advertising, the audience along the road might be more known: traffic counts are known and drivers who use a particular road or go through a particular location are a particular group. This may be more targeted advertising with a known number of daily viewers.
  2. Do people seeing religious or political billboards respond to them similarly or differently compared to commercial billboards? The medium of a billboard requires a fairly simple message as people go by them at a high speed. An image or two and limited text are possible. People are used to commercial appeals. So, does anything change if a Bible verse is on a sign? I know there is a religious marketplace in the United States but does a billboard encourage more religiosity? Or, does an image of a politician and a short statement catch people’s attention? Are these just like other billboards, or, because religion and politics can be personal and contentious, do they provoke more engagement or more turning away?
  3. My bigger question about billboards and all forms of advertising: how much does it influence behavior? I saw these billboards, they caused me to think a little and I am blogging about the concept here, and any other ongoing influence is hard to ascertain. In my lifetime, I have seen thousands of billboards, just as I have likely seen hundreds of thousands of advertisements in other forms. I know they influence people but it is hard to connect the dots between billboards and change.

I will keep looking for and reading more unusual billboards. At the least, they help break up a long drive.

Balancing the needs of a region and nation versus the impact on local communities

Following up on a possible railroad merger that would affect multiple Chicago suburbs, several suburban leaders acknowledge that there are both community and larger interests at stake:

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Communities’ concerns about the length and frequency of trains are valid, but the key is to find a balance between alleviating their concerns and letting the railroads operate efficiently, bringing needed goods from one place to another, said Karen Darch, village president of Barrington and a board member of the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning who has worked on railroad issues.

“We need transportation, this is a big industry for us, for the country,” she said. “And yet we want our communities to be safe and livable.”…

“It’s hard to argue against the commercial benefits that will occur from unifying these lines, and so the city’s trying to be realistic in terms of balancing its own interests with the greater benefit that can come for the U.S. economy,” he said. “We’re just asking, with the recognition that the railroads are going to benefit from this merger, we need some help.”

This is a conundrum that faces communities, regions, and the nation in multiple areas. The issue often arises in transportation but could also include eminent domain and land use, the move of a company from one location to another, and uneven development across communities. Whose interests should win out? How much room for compromise is there? How much can everyone involved see all of the layers?

There is little question that the Chicago region is an important region for railroad traffic in the United States. At the same time, that traffic impacts day-to-day experiences as well as long-term prospects for communities. What is good for the region or for national traffic may not look like what communities want.

The key here might be the efforts of the railroads themselves. What would they be willing to change about their operations and how much money would they contribute to help alleviate problems? This could range from listening to concerns, rerouting traffic away from residential areas, and contributing to the construction of bridges or underpasses to alleviate issues at at-grade crossings. This also helps make the contributions of railroads more tangible to suburbanites; people may know abstractly that railroads are important but have little to no direct interaction with any railroad company or representatives.

Just how many compounds, mansions, and luxury condos does a billionaire need?

Jeff Bezos owns multiple expensive properties:

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When Jeff Bezos isn’t launching himself into space, he’s on the hunt for another trophy property to add to his already-impressive real estate portfolio. Earlier this year, the Amazon founder reportedly acquired a 14-acre compound in Hawaii for a whopping $78 million in a mysterious deal (more on that later) which brought the value of his real estate holdings to an astronomical $578 million, if not more. The billionaire has picked up several properties in his home state of Washington, a number of New York City apartments, a few sprawling estates in California, a ranch in Texas, and a number of places in Washington, D.C. Below, we’ve rounded up all of the homes the entrepreneur owns in the U.S.—so far…

Several years after Bezos founded Amazon, he put down $10 million for what has largely been his primary residence over the past few decades. It comprises two homes measuring 20,600 square feet and 8,300 square feet, respectively, situated on about 5.3 acres in the exclusive Medina neighborhood of Seattle (Bill Gates also owns a home there). In 2010, the Albuquerque native invested $28 million to renovate the property. That same year, Bezos reportedly bought the property next door, a 24,000-square-foot house that came with an additional five acres. The Tudor–style home was listed for $53 million at the time, but it is unclear what the billionaire ended up paying for the purchase. Bezos still owns this massive compound…

Bezos made a big move to Washington, D.C. in late 2016, snapping up two sprawling mansions measuring a combined 27,000 square feet for $23 million. Built in 1914, one of the massive homes was previously the site of the Textile Museum and was recorded as one of the largest houses in all of D.C. According to The Washington Post, which Bezos owns, the billionaire purchased the property with plans to convert the two adjacent structures into one single family home so that the Bezos family could use it during their visits to the city. It is located in the Kalorama neighborhood, which has also been home to the Obamas, Ivanka Trump, and Jared Kushner. In 2018, it was reported that Bezos was planning a $12-million renovation on the place, including the addition of a garden room to one of the two structures…

The next year, Bezos expanded his Beverly Hills compound with the purchase of the $12.9-million home next door to the Spanish-style mansion he’d bought in 2007. While details of the house are scant, the Los Angeles Times reports that the structure measures 4,586 square feet, with four bedrooms and six full bathrooms. The property features a gated semi-circular drive and a picturesque swimming pool shaded by mature trees…

In April, Bezos bought a fourth unit in the luxe Madison Square Park apartment building where he’d snapped up three homes the previous summer, dropping $16 million for a three-bedroom unit adjacent to the two lower-level units from the original purchase. Although it was unclear at the time what Bezos’s plans were for combining all four units, building permits were submitted in fall 2019, so it’s likely the fourth acquisition was meant to be an addendum to the already-grand Manhattan mega-mansion.

Real estate can serve multiple purposes for the wealthy. They need multiple places, homes near work, in important cities, and in getaway locations, to keep their wealthy lifestyle going and to keep their daily activity out of the public eye. These properties can be investments as the number of such units is limited. Finally, these holdings are status symbols in themselves as they require money, staff, and attention that few individuals could provide.

The implication here is that Bezos has spent a lot on all of his properties. Given his wealth, maybe not. What I would be more interested in is how his holdings compare to other billionaires. What is the average number of expensive properties? Are mansions, urban luxury locations, resort properties, or rural holdings more common? How do these big actors affect real estate activity in different locations? Deeper study of the real estate activity of the most wealthy could help us better understand how wealth translates into real estate capital.

A developer describes the difficulty in redeveloping a suburban shopping mall

A developer describes the challenges they face in planning a new future for what used to be Charlestowne Mall in St. Charles, Illinois:

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“The redevelopment of a vacant enclosed mall is one of the most difficult undertakings in real estate development,” he said. “The Wall Street Journal ran an article a few weeks ago describing how none of the options for a mall makeover are easy. Conversions to other uses are complex and capital intensive. Unless there is a great shortage of land in an area, most developers would much prefer to buy land and avoid the expense, time and complexity of tearing down an old mall.”…

He said the challenge is to figure out how to redevelop the mall in an economically feasible way that pays for an estimated $35 million in redevelopment costs while maintaining the existing commercial uses during reconstruction and satisfying the city’s desires for something that will serve the needs of the residents of St. Charles.

The developers plan to initially foot the bill for those redevelopment costs. But to make the project financially feasible, he said a tax increment financing district will have to be put in place…

“A tax increment financing district must be established to pay over time for the estimated $35 million cost of demolition and reconstruction of site improvements that are necessary to accommodate many uses for the property,” he said. “This is exactly the purpose for which TIFs were created. Without a TIF, the redevelopment of the mall is not financially possible.”

In addition, he said a revenue stream must be created to pay for the project’s costs. After analyzing the situation, the developers said the revenue stream must come primarily from real estate taxes generated from at least 500 residential units.

The American shopping mall is in bad shape. Redevelopment ideas have been circulating for years and malls have added restaurants, entertainment options, and housing. But, as the above suggests, this is not necessarily an easy task. Shopping malls were supposed to be good for communities, providing shopping, a place to gather, and tax revenue. Redevelopment offers the possibility of a brighter future but it requires work.

It is not surprising to hear that a developer wants help in redeveloping the property. This will help them make money. It is common practice in many communities to offer such help, particularly for important properties. At the same time, this property has some value. Malls are typically located on valuable land, often at the confluence of major roads and adjacent to other shopping and restaurants but also possibly near housing. Would a TIF and other incentives make sure the developer sees a profit or has a bigger profit?

Considering this proposal is part of a long process. See earlier posts about the troubled Charlestowne Mall here and here. Trying to revive a mall, finding a developer to significantly alter the property, and then seeing how it all works can take years. This particular mall may only be in the relatively early stages of this with years to come before residents and visitors see a transformed location.

Expectations and realities: “Being in the most advanced country in the world, why can’t we do [blank]”?

One person stuck on I-95 overnight due to snow and conditions responded to the situation this way:

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“Not one police (officer) came in the 16 hours we were stuck,” she said. “No one came. It was just shocking. Being in the most advanced country in the world, no one knew how to even clear one lane for all of us to get out of that mess?”

I have seen some version of this quote in numerous contexts in recent months. It could reference:

-health care

-US military and political involvement in Afghanistan

-infrastructure issues

-conducting elections

-responding to natural disasters

-passing basic legislation

The expectation is that the United States is highly advanced or the most advanced country in the world. The country boasts a history of innovation and pragmatism, a powerful military, and an influential set of ideals. If all of this is true, why then can the United States not address such basic issues (in the eyes of the questioner)?

Implicit in this question is whether the United States exists amid a massive contradiction. For all of those markers of success, perhaps the country is not as advanced as its people think. Perhaps there are difficult issues to solve, complex concerns that we do not know how to or do not have the will to address.

Take the above example of unexpected bad weather. Large highway backups during snowstorms are not unknown in the United States. They occur even in areas more accustomed to cold and snow. Sure, local responses can differ. But, these systems are complex with natural forces, hundreds of autonomous drivers, governments and private actors responding, and the relatively long distances Americans are used to traveling on a daily basis.

All of the issues mentioned above as something an advanced country should be able to address are not simple. The expectation that a country should always easily get it right might be unrealistic. Even so, if a large number of people think the issue should be easily solvable, this quickly becomes a problem when it is not.

The transmission of religious faith from parents to children and individual faith choices

A sociology book published in 2021 emphasizes the role of parents in religiosity in the United States. From an excerpt:

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Parents define for their children the role that religious faith and practice ought to play in life, whether important or not, which most children roughly adopt. Parents set a “glass ceiling” of religious commitment above which their children rarely rise. Parental religious investment and involvement is in almost all cases the necessary and even sometimes sufficient condition for children’s religious investment and involvement.

This parental primacy in religious transmission is significant because, even though most parents do realize it when they think about it, their crucial role often runs in the background of their busy lives; it is not a conscious, daily, strategic matter. Furthermore, many children do not recognize the power that their parents have in shaping their religious lives but instead view themselves as autonomous information processors making independent, self-directing decisions. Widespread cultural scripts also consistently say that the influence of parents over their children recedes starting with the onset of puberty, while the influence of peers, music, and social media takes over.

Other common and influential cultural scripts operate to disempower parents by telling them that they are not qualified to care for their children in many ways, so they should turn their children over to experts. Further, the perceptions of at least some (frustrated) staff at religious congregations is that more than a few parents assume that others besides themselves (the staff) are responsible for forming their children religiously (in Sunday school, youth group, confirmation, catechism, etc.).

Yet all empirical data tell us that for intergenerational religious transmission today, the key agents are parents, not clergy or other religious professionals. The key location is the home, not religious congregations. And the key mechanisms of socialization are the formation of ordinary life practices and identities, not programs, preaching, or formal rites of passage.

There are multiple implications of these findings. I’ll briefly consider one hinted at above. In the United States, religion is often considered an individual matter. A believer is one who has consciously made a choice in their religious beliefs, behaviors, and belonging. In the American religious system, there is plenty of freedom to make such choices, whether one is identifying with a different religious tradition, putting together multiple pieces from different traditions, or citing no religiosity at all.

But, sociology as a discipline suggests no one is a complete free agent. This applies in all areas of life, including religion. We are pressured – a negative connotation often in the American context but social pressure can be positive or negative – by society and its parts.

If a religious tradition then emphasizes agency and authenticity regarding faith, it has the possibility of ignoring or downplaying social forces at work. Take evangelicals. According to the Bebbington Quadrilateral, one feature of this group is conversionism. This emphasis on a religious conversion often refers to an individual moment when a believer made a decision and/or had a definable conversion experience. This helps establish that this is a true and authentic faith, in comparison to being a cultural Christian or adopting the faith of one’s family or people.

The excerpt above does not suggest that the actions of a parent – or other social actors or institutions – always leads to a certain outcome but rather that how parents interact with religion increases or decreases the likelihood of religious faith of their kids. It is not deterministic but it is a demonstrable pattern where social forces – parents – influence individuals regarding religiosity.

If parents influence the faith of a teenager, is that teenager’s faith less real? Or, is this how human life works: we are influenced by social forces around us and we have the ability to exercise some agency?