The “Black Tax”: higher property taxes for black homeowners in order to eventually seize homes

A new study looks at a practice common in Chicago and other cities where raised property taxes for black residents helped others take their homes:

Kahrl’s case study, which was released this month by the Journal of Urban History, traces the practice of tax-lien speculation to a 1951 reform in Illinois state law called the Revenue Act. During the same years when “redlining” emerged as a severely racially discriminatory mortgage practice, assessors in cities such as Chicago systemically over-valued homes in black neighborhoods for property-tax purposes…

Tax-lien speculation proved to be one hell of a business. Over the course of six months in 1973, for example, Gray acquired the deeds to 93 homes in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood for a total of $70,000. Each parcel was worth as much as $20,000 at the time—and potentially much, much more to speculators once all the neighborhood’s black residents had been evicted…

Not every tax-lien sale resulted in a transfer of deed, but they always resulted in a transfer of wealth. Many homeowners managed to pay off their liens at high interest rates—often 18 percent, the legal ceiling—along with a host of fees. Making real money depended on finding the poorest and most vulnerable owners in the poorest but most over-assessed neighborhoods. This practice was perfectly legal. The “Black Tax” was law…

The remarkably resilient predatory-tax-lien business continues to thrive, despite efforts at reform. The industry is enormous. Late in 2014, the Abell Foundation published a report on the state of the practice in Baltimore City. In 2013, the city sold tax liens for more than 2,000 owner-occupied homes. Almost one-tenth of these liens were attached to water bills. In 2014, of some 6,690 tax liens sold, 2,236 were for owner-occupied homes.

Given the interest, fees, and court costs, a homeowner’s $500 delinquent tax or water bill can mushroom to $3,000 over a two-year window—the time an owner has to pay down the lien. According to the report, there were 2,805 pending tax-lien foreclosure cases in Baltimore City in 2014. Noting the difficulty in tracking these tax-foreclosure evictions, the Abell Foundation report’s authors warn that in Baltimore, the “tax sale can lead to evictions, homelessness, and property vacancies and abandonment in a city already plagued by all three.”

More inequality via race and property in the United States. As if residential segregation wasn’t enough – ongoing lending practices and tax policies continue to make it difficult for blacks and other poor residents to build wealth over time.

The racial bias in predatory lending

A new study in the American Sociological Review explores how race impacted predatory lending and the larger U.S. housing crisis:

Poorer minority areas became a focus of these practices in the 1990s with the growth of mortgage-backed securities, which enabled lenders to pool low- and high-risk loans to sell on the secondary market, Professor Douglas Massey of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and PhD candidate Jacob Rugh, said in their study.

The financial institutions likely to be found in minority areas tended to be predatory — pawn shops, payday lenders and check cashing services that “charge high fees and usurious rates of interest,” they said in the study.

“By definition, segregation creates minority dominant neighborhoods, which, given the legacy of redlining and institutional discrimination, continue to be underserved by mainstream financial institutions,” the study says.

The larger tale is that minority neighborhoods still do not have the same access to banks and lending institutions that non-minority neighborhoods enjoy. While the practices are now less covert (no redlining, restrictive deeds and covenants, riots when minorities moved into white neighborhoods), there are still clear race lines in American lending. These lending patterns have a strong impact on where people live, contributing to residential segregation (as seen in these maps).