The net worth of the average African-American family is around one-tenth of that of the average white US family and that’s mostly down to property, I was told on one of my first visits to New Orleans in summer 2011.
I was taking refuge from the July sun at the Old US Mint. On show inside the building, part of the Louisiana State Museum, was an exhibition on mortgage “redlining”. This is the highly problematic practice, sadly legal until 1968, of excluding residents of certain areas of a city from access to mortgages, often on the basis of race.
Mortgage redlining, the exhibition told me, has had a very tangible effect on household income in America. Much income disparity between black and white American families, I read, “is due to differing rates of home ownership between these two groups and to the generally lower values of homes owned by blacks”.
Housing was much on my mind at that time. The effects of the global financial crisis, which had its roots in part in the US mortgage market, were still unfolding. Meanwhile, I myself had recently become for the first time both the owner of a London home (a small flat in Hackney) and the holder of a residential mortgage.
Housing has always represented personal trajectories and wider political ones. This is especially true here in the UK. A gathering of people above a certain age in London will often involve a discussion of house prices. UK prime minister Theresa May’s recent admission that home ownership may no longer be an achievable goal for many British people, an issue that is most acute in the capital, has prompted much national soul searching.
As the mortgage redlining exhibition emphasised, housing has a similar significance in the US. You could say this was encapsulated in some ways by Michelle Obama’s comment about her then-home, the White House, last summer. “I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves,” she said. “And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.”
During the Obama presidency, the income disparity between black and white families that is so linked to property ownership has narrowed, but not disappeared. Since I visited the redlining exhibition in 2011, the average household income of black US families has risen to represent just over 60 per cent of that of white US families, according to some 2015 figures.
In New Orleans specifically, houses and home ownership have very particular personal and political meanings. The sight of homes marked with “Katrina crosses” by FEMA is one of the most profound symbols of both the personal losses and wider political failures that were part of the often racially-delineated impact of the storm on the city. In the years since Katrina, the effect of rising house prices on the city’s communities, and particularly its black ones, has been much debated.
I have a German friend who thinks that we Londoners are mad to care so much about houses, house prices and home ownership. But in the places where these things mark us in so many ways, willingly or not, it’s hard not to do so.
Image: Shutter Runner