CLEVELAND, Ohio (AFP) — They had small means and big hopes of owning a house. But African-Americans snared in the US mortgage crisis have seen the American dream turn into a nightmare many call “financial apartheid.”
The storm triggered by risky “subprime” loans has left many in ruins, forced out of their modest homes and furious at falling victim to financial dealings that have taken a particular toll on minority families.
“People of color are more than three times more likely to have subprime loans,” concluded the organization United for a Fair Economy in a recent report which estimated that minorities have seen between 163 billion and 278 billion dollars of their equity go up in smoke since 2000.
With its weakened economy and a large black population more used to renting, Cleveland has become a poster child of the subprime crisis in a country where some 2.1 million borrowers are behind on their mortgage payments.
City officials estimate that foreclosures have swallowed some 70,000 homes and turned entire neighborhoods into ghost towns.
The city has responded by suing lenders, accusing them of targeting black borrowers and steering them to the loans granted with few formalities and at hefty interest rates to people with poor credit histories.
In this city where nearly 27 percent of the population lives under the poverty line — about 20,000 dollars a year for a family of four — many have a friend, a cousin, a brother, a co-worker or a neighbor who lost a home because they could no longer make their monthly payments once their adjustable rates jumped.
“Cleveland, Detroit, Baltimore (are) cities where lots of people of color live and what do they have in common? They are hit by the foreclosures meltdown. Is it a coincidence?” said Jesse Tinsley, who lives in the low-income Mount Pleasant neighborhood.
“When the wave of foreclosures blighted our neighborhood, members of our community rang the alarm. Nobody did anything. Now that white suburbs are hit, the city hall discovered foreclosures,” he said.
“The mayor didn’t do anything for our community for four years, they said ‘they deserved it.’ Now everybody noticed that we have been targeted by greedy people.”
Nikita Bailey, an activist with the non-profit Center for Responsible Lending, warned that the mortgage crisis could empty the pockets of African-Americans.
“Today the subprime market is poised to bring about the greatest drain of wealth the African-American community has ever experienced,” Bailey told AFP. “It is a financial apartheid no doubt about it.”
For Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Phillip Morris, the extent of the devastation is comparable to that wrought by Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005.
In the hardest-hit suburb of Cleveland, “nearly 24,000 people have lost their homes to Cleveland’s Katrina,” he told AFP.
“Families left behind furniture, clothing even family photos.”
In the hardest-hit district of New Orleans, the real Katrina destroyed about 13,700 houses, displacing some 35,000 people, Morris said.
“More than two years later, 6,000 homeowners (in St. Bernard Parish) have each received an average 65,000 dollars in government funds to rebuild their American Dreams. But in Cleveland and its suburbs, there is no disaster relief, no presidential visits, no good Samaritans to helps us.”
“It would have been better if it was an earthquake or a hurricane, we respond better to natural disasters than to men in suits disasters,” said city councilor Zach Reid.
In the streets, shops, suburbs and restaurants, resentment against the government and the Washington elite flourishes.
“People in Washington — George Bush, the US Senate, the US Congress — witnessed it, they stood by and they didn’t do nothing to stop it,” said Cleveland resident John Brett.
“It was almost like they were on the Titanic, and they could see the iceberg coming and they did nothing about it,” he said sitting at the counter of the Velvet Dog Bar.
“They wrecked our American dreams, the willingness to own a home,” he said. “Even during the Great Depression we did not see the number of homes and properties abandoned like we are seeing now.”