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“Why rent? You have nothing to lose but your landlord.” Residents of the New York City metropolitan area heard these words in a series of radio and television advertisements. The ads were directed at moderate income Black and Latino workers who wanted to experience the American dream of home ownership. Thousands found the appeal irresistible and purchased homes in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania, more than two hours commuting time away from their jobs in New York City.

The reward for this sacrifice was the discovery that the homes were often shoddily built and worth far less than the prices paid for them. In a flurry of lawsuits mortgage holders like J.P. Morgan Chase have been charged with racketeering. Now homeowners face the choice of hanging on to homes they can neither sell nor refinance or becoming victims of a foreclosure auction. The sales-to-foreclosure ratio in Monroe County, Pennsylvania stands at 29 percent, while the national average is 1 percent.

The median price of homes in the areas surrounding New York City range from $300,000  to $500,000. The so-called outer boroughs of New York City were always considered a haven for the working class who could scrape together enough money for a down payment. However, the median price for a home in the borough of Queens was $350,000 in 2003. There is no longer any moderately priced housing refuge for the working New Yorker.

The lure of home ownership is easy to understand in a property loving culture that encourages everyone with a job to think of themselves as middle class, regardless of their income or amount of assets. We are constantly told that renting is not only a waste of money but a sign of middle class failure. Consequently many Americans buy homes who cannot afford to do so with any margin of financial security. The corrupt practices in the Poconos were a perfect trap for people who wanted to buy houses and also everything the American dream represented.

The propaganda espousing the superiority of property ownership is insidious enough but it is inevitably intertwined with equally dangerous beliefs.

"I wanted to be the first in my family to actually own a home. I wanted to break the cycle, to show my kids that if you work hard, there's nothing you can't do." – Pocono homebuyer to the New York Times

A dream that tells us we live in the land of opportunity and that if we don’t prosper it is obviously our fault may be more like a nightmare. We are told and begin to believe that if we just worked harder we would be better off. We can’t keep blaming white people for our problems. Black people don’t know what to do with money. We must pull ourselves up by the bootstraps. The litany of self-flagellation goes on and on. The inward directed anger is a reaction to the knowledge that the system is stacked against us and the stack gets higher as time goes by. For many people it becomes too much to admit that the system is not structured to work in their favor. If they do succeed in buying a home or acquiring other trappings of success it is in spite of our system, not because of it. It is little wonder that hard working people became victims of a scam that appealed to their most deeply held wishes and values.

It is ironic that Black people will often accept the notion that their plight results from a lack of interest or willingness to work hard. Other people know that we want the best for our families. One of the corrupt Pocono homebuilders even produced a video depicting urban murder, theft and drug dealing, as if the prospective buyers needed to be reminded of the problems they wanted to flee.  The scammers certainly knew that Black and Latino New Yorkers are desperate to improve their lot in life and provide a safe environment for their children.

The willingness to endure a daily commute of four to five hours would not be necessary if anyone in a position of power provided housing for working people. New York Governor George Pataki and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg are always ready to preen for the cameras to show plans for a new World Trade Center tower or a white elephant stadium designed to attract the Olympics. There is obviously little interest in helping moderate income workers find decent, affordable housing within New York City.

The median price of co-ops and condos in Manhattan is nearly $1 million. Brownstones in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn are now purchased by young white people who used to be known as yuppies. The hapless but hopeful masses buying homes in the Poconos would have been able to buy brownstones in years past if they were thrifty enough. Now all of the thrift they can muster just won’t do. The Governor and Mayor spend their time catering to the wishes of millionaire developers and sports team owners. Government workers who can’t buy houses don’t rate in their list of priorities.

Bloomberg and Pataki have bigger fish to fry. They have to lay a foundation for the new World Trade Center site during the upcoming Republican convention. Ironically, the revelations emanating from the 9/11 commission make the choice of New York City as a convention site look less and less like a good idea. Perhaps there is some justice after all. Maybe they will have to think about voters if they want to be elected.

Margaret Kimberley’s Freedom Rider column appears weekly in .  Ms. Kimberley is a freelance writer living in New York City.  She can be reached via e-Mail at You can read more of Ms. Kimberley's writings at




April 22 2004
Issue 87

is published every Thursday.

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