Boom, Bust, Repeat

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We heard barking as we approached the four-bedroom bungalow on a tidy suburban cul-de-sac near West Palm Beach. A 30-ish white man with sandy brown hair opened the door. “Is there a dog?” my mom asked with her Caribbean lilt.

He caged the dog. We stepped inside, and my mother delivered the grim news: She was a real estate agent representing the bank that now owned the house. He, his young wife and their four sons, none older than 12, had to go. Taken aback, the couple explained that they were always on time with their rent. But it was not about them; the landlord had gotten in trouble and didn’t bother to tell them. It was up to my mom to do that. They would like to buy the house, they pleaded. Could she talk to the bank about that?

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She nodded sympathetically and agreed to look into it. If they moved in the next three days, though, she was authorized to give them $400 for moving expenses. That week in November, they left the quiet neighborhood behind.

As President Obama touched down in Florida this week to sell his stimulus plan, I thought about that family and similar scenes playing out all across the Sunshine State. As I read about the crisis and hear my mom’s war stories, I am struck by the realization that in Florida real estate, the swirl of history is stuck on rotate.

When my mom abandoned her career as an accountant to become an agent a few years ago, it was just as the air was going out of the Florida housing market. Economists began to sound the alarm over the rampant speculation.

She mostly ignored those reports, inspired partly by my family’s own adventure in Florida real estate. My extended family bought a 1926 vernacular frame and carriage house that was once owned by a wealthy black man named James Jerome “Cracker” Johnson, whom the local history books call the “King of Black West Palm Beach.” At the time of purchase, we were more concerned about another kind of history repeating itself: One of black people being pushed out of the nicest parts of Palm Beach County, as I wrote in an article in the NAACP’s Crisis magazine.

But more significantly now, I realize that at the time Cracker Johnson built the house, Florida was in the middle of a growing real estate bubble. Nearly a century before cable television urged viewers to Flip This House, Florida lots were bought and sold for double their prices in a matter of a week as an article in American Heritage noted:

Then options on lots were traded, and options on options were sold. Fabulous stories abounded, like the one of a cabdriver who took a couple the thirteen hundred miles from Manhattan to Palm Beach and, with his fare and tip, invested in real estate and made a million dollars.”

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But then as now, members of the media, Forbes magazine in particular, eventually began to sound the alarm about the state’s overheated housing market and rampant speculation of the 1920s. Eventually the confidence game ran out, and the market hit rock bottom around 1925.

Then, maybe to accentuate the point, a deadly hurricane hit South Florida in 1928.

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Somehow, Cracker Johnson continued to live the good life. Using money he earned selling bootleg liquor, running the Boleto numbers game, running clubs and investing in real estate, he built the house where he raised his family. When the city of West Palm Beach found itself swimming in debt, he loaned it $50,000 to balance the budget. The house, with its 12-inch-thick concrete walls, remains one of the few houses that survived the deadly hurricane of 1928.

When my family bought Cracker Johnson’s house nearly four years ago, both the house and the surrounding neighborhood were in a state of decay, despite its proximity to glitzy downtown and the island of Palm Beach. We had hopes of a renaissance in the neighborhood that once housed the black elite but is now better known for a notorious housing project. But that, too, has been stalled by the housing crisis.

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Abandoned homes breed weeds and trouble. Everyone is watching, waiting , hoping for things to improve. And each day my mom works 16+ hours, trying to contain the mess.

It is her job to keep black muck from invading bank-owned swimming pools. To prevent mold, rodents and termites from colonizing Florida homes. It is her job to tack up plywood boards on the windows, to prevent people from pilfering the copper pipes.

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She is the one who does pricing reports to tell the bank the beachfront condos they gave some poor sap $300,000 to buy was now worth $70,000.

But the more I read about the history of Florida’s housing bust, the more I worry about how long “waiting it out” will take: After the 1920s housing bust, Florida’s economy did not recover until after World War II. We are, though, in the midst of what Kim McLarin memorably called “America’s Chitlin Era,” when the industrious ingenuity of black people shines. My mom says it’s time for our family to close ranks. Pool our money. Tighten our belts. Live within our means. “How did black folks survive the Depression?” she likes to ask.

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Natalie Hopkinson is associate editor of The Root.

Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington, D.C.-based author whose current projects deal with the arts, gender and public life. She is the author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter

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