Dinner & Dialogue group looks back at race, economics and Chicago’s housing trap

Thursday, September 12, 2019

JUF News
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Director Bill Orenstein answers questions following the screening of “The Color Tax.”

Throughout the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, Black Chicagoans were cheated out of close to $4 billion in today’s dollars. That’s because the fastest method of wealth acquisition – homeownership – was virtually closed to them.

This sobering number and the story behind it are at the heart of Bruce Orenstein’s forthcoming six-episode documentary, ” The Shame of Chicago .”

JUF’s Jewish Community Relations Council and the North Lawndale Historical and Cultural Society screened Episode 3, “The Color Tax,” during a Sept. 10 Dinner & Dialogue program that also included small-group discussions on the intersection of economics and race. About 50 people participated.

“What happened in Lawndale in the ’50s and ’60s is a story many Chicagoans don’t know and don’t tell,” Orenstein said when he introduced the film at the event.

The director has deep Chicago roots: His grandfather lived and worked in North Lawndale, and he grew up in Skokie. He now teaches at Duke University, where he is artist in residence.

His film details how real-estate speculators would buy houses in North Lawndale and then sell them to unsuspecting buyers on contract. The buyers thought they were getting a mortgage. The difference is that contract buyers do not build equity in their home and may be evicted any time. The buyers often paid inflated prices, sometimes twice the value of the home.

Jewish attorney Mark Satter brought attention to this practice after a couple sought his help while facing eviction. Laws did not protect contract buyers, and documentation is scarce. It was not until nearly two decades later that the practice was stopped when neighborhood residents organized into the Contract Buyers League with the assistance of Jesuit seminarian Jack Macnamara. Members of the league pressured contract holders to renegotiate by refusing to pay. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 curbed the practice.

Researcher Alfonso Vaca-Loyola was part of a 10-person team that dug through 73 boxes of documents to come up with the $4 billion figure. He spoke about the research process and the information that was available in Recorder of Deeds records.

“One of the ways racism manifests is the erasure of history,” Vaca-Loyola told the Dinner & Dialogue group. “Contracts weren’t required to be recorded. So for some homes, we don’t have the information about some of the buyers or for some of the time.”

The six facilitated small-group discussions that followed focused on personal stories, the effect of gentrification, neighborhood resources and lack of them. Participants mentioned systemic dis-investment in South and West Side neighborhoods, which led to decreased property values and poor quality of education.

“You can pull yourself up by the bootstraps, but only if you’ve got the straps,” said attendee Bev Copeland, who now lives in Evanston, but has family roots in North Lawndale.

Systemic racism, such as that depicted in “The Color Tax,” has meant that few have the resources to work toward achieving homeownership and the American Dream, attendees said.

“We’ve lost on every line. It’s been going on for five generations now,” said North Lawndale resident and activist Dorothy Goldsmith. “We don’t want any more loss.”

Many of the small groups turned to action steps and potential solutions for the effects of 20 th century racist policies still felt today: education, financial literacy, engaging elected and appointed officials, and economic development.

For his part, Orenstein hopes the series will be a valuable educational tool that inspires people to action.

“I’m a community organizer at heart,” he said. “Once we know the truth about the situation, we can work on solutions.”

Read the full article here.