Three years ago, Lamar Grace left Detroit for the suburb of Southfield. He got a good deal — a 3,000-square-foot colonial that once was worth $220,000. In foreclosure, he paid $109,000.
The neighbors were not pleased.
“They don’t want to live next door to ghetto folks,” he says.
That his neighbors are black, like Grace, is immaterial. Many in the black middle class moved out of Detroit and settled in the northern suburbs years ago; now, due to foreclosures, it is easy to buy or rent houses on the cheap here. The result has been a new, poorer wave of arrivals from the city, and growing tensions between established residents and the newcomers.
“There’s a way in which they look down on people moving in from Detroit into houses they bought for much lower prices,” says Grace, a 39-year-old telephone company analyst. “I understand you want to keep out the riffraff, but it’s not my fault you paid $250,000 and I paid a buck.”
The neighbors say there’s more to it than that. People like John Clanton, a retired auto worker, say the new arrivals have brought behavior more common in the inner city — increased trash, adults and children on the streets at all times of the night, a disregard for others’ property.
“During the summer months, I sat in the garage and at 3 o’clock in the morning you see them walking up and the down the streets on their cell phones talking,” Clanton says. “They pull up (in cars) in the middle of the street, and they’ll hold a conversation. You can’t get in your driveway. You blow the horn and they look back at you and keep on talking. That’s all Detroit.”
The tensions have not gone unnoticed by local officials.
“I’ve got people of color who don’t want people of color to move into the city,” says Southfield Police Chief Joseph Thomas, who is himself black. “It’s not a black-white thing. This is a black-black thing. My six-figure blacks are very concerned about multiple-family, economically depressed people moving into rental homes and apartments, bringing in their bad behaviors.”
For example, “They still think it’s OK to play basketball at 3 o’clock in the morning; it’s OK to play football in the streets when there’s a car coming; it’s OK to walk down the streets three abreast. That’s unacceptable in this city.”
Thomas has seen the desperation of the new arrivals. His officers, handling complaints, have found two or more families living in a single house, pooling their money for rent. They have “no food in the refrigerator and no furniture,” Thomas says. “They can’t afford the food. They can’t afford the furniture.” But they were eager to flee the gunfire of their old neighborhoods in Detroit.
The foreclosure crisis made it possible.
“We had a large number of people who have purchased homes from 2005 on, where the banks were very generous with their credit and they’ve allowed for people without documentation and income verification to borrow 95 to 100 percent of home values,” Southfield Treasurer Irv Lowenberg says. “Many purchased homes when they had two jobs in the household and one of the jobs was lost.
“As values began dropping, people were looking around and saying ‘Why should I stay and pay my mortgage when other people aren’t?’ They decided to hand the keys back to the bank.”
Many of the foreclosed upon Southfield homes were going for $40,000 to $60,000. The median home value dropped from more than $190,000 to below $130,000 over the same period, according to Census figures.
With so many empty houses available, rents also dipped by hundreds of dollars. Renters increased from about 13,100 in 2006 to 15,400 in 2009.
The lure of low prices to Detroiters was obvious — as was the likelihood that their arrival would not be without issues.
“Blacks, like all Americans, want good schools and a safe community, and they can find that in the suburbs,” says Richard Schragger, who teaches local government and urban law at the University of Virginia.
Now, suburbs closest to big cities are “bedeviled” by the same problems that helped spur urban flight decades ago, Schragger adds. “And you’re seeing further flight out. Rising crime levels, some rising levels of disorder.”
These were the things that prompted Richard Twiggs to leave Detroit 23 years ago for the safety, quiet and peace of mind Southfield offered.
“The reason suburbs are the way they are is because a certain element can’t afford to live in your community,” adds Twiggs, a 54-year-old printer. “If you have $300,000, $400,000, $500,000 homes you’re relatively secure in the fact that (the homeowners) are people who can afford it.
“But when you have this crash, people who normally couldn’t afford to live in Southfield are moving in. When you have a house for $9,900 on the corner over there — that just destroys my property.”
The pride that comes with home ownership and a large financial investment in the property is missing, says Clanton, who lives across the street from Twiggs on Stahelin, about a half-mile north of Detroit. Back yards are deep and mostly tree-shaded. Sidewalks are few.
“I treasure what I bought,” Clanton says. “I want to keep it, but I don’t need somebody to come in and throw their garbage on mine. Why would they come and make our lives miserable because they don’t care?”
Though they acknowledge they would lose money by selling their current homes, Clanton and Twiggs are contemplating moving further north.
Sheryll Cashin, who teaches constitutional law and race and American law at Georgetown University, says it would be a shame if black flight from the city set off black flight from the near suburbs.
Some blacks just don’t want to live near other blacks, she says: “There is classism within the black community. The foreclosure crisis may be accelerating it.” But she says middle-class blacks, like middle-class whites, are also put off by behavior of impoverished blacks who “have developed their own culture, one that is very different from mainstream America.”
Those who contemplate fleeing have fallen into what Cashin calls the “black middle-class dilemma.”
“You have a choice of whether you are willing to be around your people or go 180 degrees in the other direction,” she says. “To the higher income black people, if you don’t want to love and help your lower-income black brethren, why would you expect white people to? If you can’t do it, no one in society can do it. You can try to flee or you can be part of the solution.”
Southfield officials say one solution to changing neighborhoods is blight enforcement, other ordinances and costly fines. The idea, said the police chief, Thomas, is not to chase people away, but to help them assimilate.
Soon after Grace, the telephone company analyst, moved into his house, he was cited for parking a small trailer on the property and storing interior doors outside. These are things that would have drawn little notice in Detroit amid the crime and failing schools, he said.
He paid $400 in fines, got rid of the doors and put the trailer in paid storage.
Eugene Williams found a foreclosure steal in one of Southfield’s many well-kempt and stable neighborhoods. Williams, like Grace, wanted to get away from Detroit.
“The kids are running around without any control,” says Williams, a 56-year-old auto plant worker. “They walk down the middle of the street and block traffic. There was gunfire at night. It was a common thing to hear gunfire.”
But the transition to life in the suburbs hasn’t been easy. As he was making improvements indoors, Southfield ordinance officials were writing citations outside. He was fined $200 for noxious weeds because the grass was too high and dandelions covered much of the front lawn.
“It wouldn’t happen in Detroit,” he says. “Your property is pretty much your property. I think, here, they are going a little overboard.”