Mr. J stands tall and straight. He speaks softly but with determination and, at times, even passion. He is Black and proud, wearing his elegant dark blue suit and matching tie. Mr. J (that is the name I shall use for him) is a member of the Black middle class which has fought hard for so many years to achieve this progress.
We are standing outside a Cleveland courtroom at the Cuyahoga County Justice Center. Mr. J is a court representative whose mission is to help people who have housing court problems and have been served with notices of housing code deficiencies. These are criminal cases. Defendant home owners found guilty of housing problems can be fined and can even be tossed in to jail.
I am present to defend an individual home owner against the housing charges. While Mr. J presents the Judge with the case, I am actually the owner's attorney. I am here to defend the home owner and insure his/her side is properly presented to the Judge. Today Mr. Smith is my client, an elderly owner well into his seventies and of Afro-American background. His wife died a number of years ago. The house involved in the case sits inside Cleveland city limits. Ten years ago, the house began to fall apart, and the Smith family lacking the necessary moneys to fix the place, had to move. Now the house has completely fallen apart with caved-in roof and gaping holes in the walls. It has become totally uninhabitable. Mr. Smith cannot even sell the land, let alone the shell of a house.
"He has no choices," says Mr. J. "The man's house has myriad Housing Code violations and the place is condemned. No one could spend the money needed to fix it up. No one will buy it."
"What can he do?" I inquire. "The house and property actually have negative value. So nobody is going to buy any of this."
"Yes, he is stuck," agrees Mr. J.
The home owner stands beside me, silent but aware that much is wrong and that the law is coming down harshly on him because he owns the house. The housing code violations, from the falling gutters, to torn up sidewalk to the falling roof, these are his possessions after a lifetime of devoted labor. So he can be fined for these and even hauled off to jail. Fines mean nothing because his only income is social security which cannot be levied upon. Thirty years ago, he and his wife bought the home and it was supposed to be part of the family's assets. This was the family legacy to be passed on to later generations. Now we are here thirty years later and the prize family possession-their home-is nothing more than rubbish. Even worse, this useless pile of litter is dragging down Mr. Smith and could result in jail time for him.
"He can deed the property to the land bank," Mr. J says to both me and Mr. Smith. .The idea is that the Cleveland Land Bank, a nonprofit charitable organization, takes over such worthless properties from the owners. The Land Bank pays nothing and the home owners receive nothing. But the home owners-usually elderly folks-do not have to worry about housing code violations anymore. They are now free, Lord God, free at last. The Land Bank "stores" away these properties and makes them available to anyone who proposes a worthwhile use. Or the properties just sit in the land bank for future generations.
"There are problems," I relate. "There is still a lien on the property and this must come off first before he can give away the house to the Cleveland Land Bank." The Land Bank is gathering under its spreading wings all the vacant and vandalized properties in Cleveland, but it only accepts properties that are clear and clean of any liens, or mortgages, or other encumbrances.
The lien for Mr. Smith's property belongs to the State of Ohio. While she was alive, the Home owner's wife needed Medicaid to cover her medical needs. Now after she has died, there is some office buried deep in the Attorney General's office in Columbus whose mission is to go after these Medicaid debts and turn them into gold. One way to accomplish this is to exert pressures on the remaining family relatives so they will repay Medicaid's kindness. Another way is to place liens on the family's home. Legally, the State could take away the property and leave the family homeless although they are still free to grieve the loss of their beloved relative.
"Do you think you can get rid of that Medicaid lien?" Mr. J asks me.
"We will try," I respond hopefully. "If the State will not release this lien, my other plan is simply to convey the property to the State on the basis that they have a lien and thus a right to the property.
"You would not deed it to the Attorney General himself?" Mr. J asks incredulously.
"That may be one way to free up the property so the Land Bank can accept it," I explain, "Therefore, this elderly owner can get rid of legal ownership and thus of any responsibility for the housing violations."
Mr. J pauses while he considers this.
"Yes, I know what you are thinking," I half chuckle. "If the Attorney General becomes the owner, then he could be held responsible for the violations and be invited to pay a visit to this court."
We both smile as we contemplate this possibility.
As for our home owner, he prepares to join me whenever our case is called to confront the magistrate.
As I stand there with Mr. J and this homeowner, another fear--from when I worked in Alabama for civil rights years ago--bothers me. Here is one lesson I learned. Many Blacks in the South owned large tracts of land-usually virgin timber land--which had been handed down thru the generations of their families. But these families had often failed to insure the legal work was done properly in the local probate courts for property transfers at death. Another problem was that often the real estate taxes had not been paid faithfully. Eventually the State seized such properties, often without much notice to the Black families, nor any real opportunity to defend their land claims.
Will the Cleveland Land Bank-following the Southern model-one day own much of our city? Will the city Fathers and Mothers discover anything valuable under the land? What about mineral deposits? Gold? Oil? Perhaps gas deposits for fracking? Or will some suburban developer come along, with great plans, and buy up these "worthless" properties at a fraction of real worth. These land speculators may then make millions out of developing them. All these home owners, and let's face it, many from minority groups, will have struggled and toiled all their lives to pay costly mortgages which bled them dry. Then these properties were lost in all sorts of ways whether through foreclosures, or tax sales, or sold for practically nothing when families lost their jobs and could not maintain their houses.
(But that is a tragic tale for another time.)
Let's return to our elderly Black home owner who only wants to be relieved of his vacant and condemned house. He is now living in an apartment for the elderly on the Far East side. "I feel sorry for this owner," I confess to Mr. J.
"But this is really like so many of us in Cleveland," Mr. J, totally unanticipated by me, snaps back at me. "That is what has happened to all of us with our property values."
"What do you mean?" I defend myself because something sounds very personal and upsetting in Mr. J's voice.
I have worked with Mr. J for several years. I had always thought of him as an extremely competent and fairly prosperous individual. He-I thought-- is a model for the middle class person of Afro-American background who "has made it."
But now he spells out his family's real story. "My wife and I bought our family home about fifteen years ago. It was a very nice Home in a very upscale City of Cleveland neighborhood." He pauses like he is weighing how much he should reveal to me, a white stranger from a distant "gated" suburb.
"How much did you pay for it?" I am curious to know.
"The price was $92,000.00," Mr. J confides. "That was a lot for a house back then, but we saw it as our main family investment. We could reside there always. Our family and relatives could live there if that was ever necessary. If anything happened, we could sell the house and we would of course gain far more than we had paid for it.
"We have now paid our House principal down to $60,000. We still owe quite a bit because our interest rate ate up much of the monthly payment. The interest rate is 5.5 percent. That was not that much back then when we bought the place, but today that is way above the interest rates people are paying."
We both pause and check if the court magistrate is ready for us. But there are still other cases in front of us. So we wait just outside the courtroom door for "our turn at bat."
"A few years ago," Mr. J continues his sad tale, "I wanted to get a lower interest rate and reduce my monthly payment. I thought I could take advantage of these advertised deals and lower the interest rate to something like two and a half percent."
"I do see those deals promoted by the banks," I agree that this plan seemed sound and doable.
"So I went to my bank where I have gone for years," Mr. J continues. "The bank said they could not give me a refinanced loan with the lower interest rate. They turned me down flat even though I have excellent credit and a good steady job. They said my house value would not support the refinancing."
There is another pause as Mr. J prepares his next revelation. "Now our neighborhood seems to be falling apart," Mr. J talks very slowly. "People are moving out and deserting all they worked for during their lives. Houses are selling for crazy low prices. Down the street one house went for Seven thousand dollars in a foreclosure sale. The house across the street sold for nine thousand. Up the street another went for thirteen thousand. I know another that was bought for ten thousand at the foreclosure auction."
He pauses again before plunging forward. "What does this mean for my home? I had somebody appraise my house. He said I would be lucky to get Thirty thousand. This is the house I have labored hard for all these many years.
"Just imagine. I have paid our mortgage for fourteen years. I go from $92,000 to $60,000 and the house is only worth $30,000…. "I am in a prison. I have to stay here for the rest of my life in a house that will never really be paid for. "I am not the only one in this mess. We have a really distinguished neighborhood of homes near us. These are 250 thousand to 300 thousand dollar houses. Many Cleveland police people bought these. Now these homes have fallen tremendously in value. One well-maintained home sold for Ninety thousand dollars. This was a three hundred thousand dollar house a few years ago. People are running away, just abandoning everything."
This, however, is not the unhappiest part of his story. "The problem gets worse," Mr. J laments. "My neighbors and I talk, What is going to happen to us? It is not just the falling Home values. What will happen to these houses? Sure, somebody will buy and then rent them. But who do they rent them to? Will the renters keep up the houses? Will they paint them, fix the gutters, cut the lawn, or clean up the place?
"Will drug dealers exploit these places for their business? Already one house on our street is known as 'the convenience store' where you can buy your drugs at any time, day or night. Will the gangs use these houses? When do the drive-by shootings begin? We would be safer if we were actually in County jail."
"Did you ask your Cleveland City councilperson for help?" Long pause. Did Mr. J hear me? Then he responds, "We have to help ourselves."
And what about all the hundreds of millions of dollars, and even billions that banks and others paid at the Federal level, for their part in the housing and foreclosure crisis? Where did all that money go? Who received it? It was not the local home owners caught up in the housing mess. It was not the middle class home titleholders -Black and White and Latino-who could do nothing as their home values disappeared under the water.
As for Mr. J and thousands of others like him, the American Dream has become the American Nightmare. They are the new refugees. Black. Middle Class. And imprisoned.
Post Script: "What about Mr. Smith?" you ask. Yes, eventually his case is called before the Magistrate. I introduce myself, "My name is Attorney Joseph Meissner," I explain, "and I am representing Mr. Smith."
"Welcome," says the Magistrate. "Mr. J? Can you present the case?"
"Yes," Mr. J says, "This house has been condemned. Nothing has been done on it in many years. The home owner wants to deed it to the Land Bank, but there are is a Medicaid lien which Attorney Meissner will try to resolve."
"Very good," says the Magistrate. "I will pass sentence after Attorney Meissner says something on behalf of his client."
"Yes, your honor," I begin. Mr. Smith is an elderly individual now residing in a home for the elderly. His only income is a small monthly social security. He has no assets except this derelict house which he had to give up a number of years ago."
"All right, taking all that into account," orders the Magistrate, "We will waive any fines as well as court costs. But I am going to sentence him to one hundred hours of community service. He will have to appear one year from today in this court, having completed his community service as well transferring the house to the Land Bank."
"Thank you, your Honor," softy says my client and I repeat our gratitude.
"Step down," says the Court bailiff. "Next case, step up."
The case is over. "The Community service Mr. Smith owes?" you wonder. That can be cleaning up the sidewalks, or picking up trash, or beautifying Cleveland.
Post script 2: I sent this article out to my usual audience of good people. One of them, who is from an Afro-American background, sent back this comment:
Hi Joe, Reading the essay reminded me that I am due in court next month because in my willingness to help others, I allowed some tenants to destroy my rental property and now I have to pay the cost of repairs and renovations before I can rent or sell it.
I also had the unfortunate responsibility of convincing my brother to give up his property after he had been unable to work and on disability for so many years, so that the home fell into disrepair -- no one could fix the many problems. Now the city wants him to pay to tear it down.
I know all about the land ownership in the south. My father was an heir, along with his two brothers, to 10 acres of land in Mississippi. They are all gone now. When I went south with my last living uncle some years ago, after my father's death, one cousin disrupted the process of changing the title to the land, and another cousin could not be found. So your essay brings up many thoughts and memories. You are a very good writer.
Third postscript: Another reader asked, "Are there not whites in the same terrible situation? Are not whites being hurt in the same way with foreclosure?
So I answered something like this. "In some way, whites are also experiencing this. But it is not quite the same as Blacks encounter this problem." Then, however, then I stop typing. Why is there a substantial difference between Blacks and Whites? "How are Blacks trapped more than Whites?"
I must think about this more and leave all of that for another essay.
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