African Americans for decades flocked to Prince George’s County to be part of a phenomenon that has been rare in American history: a community that grew more upscale as it became more black.
The county became a national symbol of the American Dream with a black twist. Families moved into expansive new homes, with rolling lawns, nearby golf courses and, most of all, neighbors who looked like them. In the early 2000s, home prices soared — some well beyond $1 million — allowing many African Americans to build the kind of wealth their elders could only imagine.
DASHED DREAMS: This is the first part in a series looking at the plight of the black middle class, particularly in Maryland’s Prince George’s County, the nation’s highest-income majority-black county.
Part 2: Half of the loans on newly constructed homes in one Prince George’s County subdivision during the housing boom in 2006 and 2007 wound up in foreclosure.
Part 3: The plight of the Boateng family, who face more than $1 million in debt, shows how some of the people swallowed up by the easy credit era have yet to reemerge.
But today, the nation’s highest-income majority-black county stands out for a different reason — its residents have lost far more wealth than families in neighboring, majority-white suburbs. And while every one of these surrounding counties is enjoying a strong rebound in housing prices and their economies, Prince George’s is lagging far behind, and local economists say a full recovery appears unlikely anytime soon.
The same reversal of fortune is playing out across the country as black families who worked painstakingly to climb into the middle class are seeing their financial foundation for future generations collapse. Although African Americans have made once-unthinkable political and social gains since the civil rights era, the severe and continuing damage wrought by the downturn — an entire generation of wealth was wiped out — has raised a vexing question: Why don’t black middle-class families enjoy the same level of economic security as their white counterparts?
The impact of the financial devastation of the past several years is hardly visible along the quiet, well-tended streets of many Prince George’s neighborhoods. The county has the highest foreclosure rate in the District region, yet few houses appear to be abandoned.
Instead, the slow-motion crisis operates mostly in private, limiting people’s options, constricting their vision and forcing a seemingly endless series of hard choices. Having your wealth vanish means making pivotal life decisions — about where to send your children to school, saving for college, making home improvements and setting aside something for retirement — knowing you have no financial leeway.
“This big gorilla on your back, it changes you,” said Fred Bryant, 40, who lives with his wife and two daughters in a brick-front Colonial featuring a one-acre lot, high ceilings, an impressive two-story foyer and a mortgage far higher than the house is worth. “Sometimes you find yourself boiling mad when you shouldn’t be.”
Bryant and his wife, Jennifer, made it to the middle class after being raised on the edges of poverty. But whatever wealth they had built is gone.
Jennifer Bryant grew up in Prince George’s County, living in a Seat Pleasant apartment complex with her mother and brother. “All I ever experienced was apartment living,” she said. “We moved from one part of the complex to another.” Her father died when she was just 5, and her mother was a homemaker who poured her energies into seeing to it that her children had it better than she did.
Fred’s parents were separated, and his father was disabled and unable to help financially. His mother worked odd jobs in the tobacco fields near his hometown of Maysville, N.C., and other times she relied on public assistance. She raised Fred and his brother in a subsidized two-bedroom apartment that Fred remembers as being little bigger than his current living room and dining room.
What Jennifer and Fred Bryant owe on their Prince George’s County home.
Estimated value of their home.
Monthly payment on the home, which has more than doubled since they moved in.
Still, Jennifer and Fred managed to graduate college, although their mothers could lend only moral support. Today, she works as a supervisor in the federal workforce. He is a manager for a sports memorabilia firm.
The problem is not their income but their home. Once a source of wealth, it is now their biggest financial burden.
The Bryants owe just over $560,000 on their house, which they estimate is worth about $80,000 less than that. Since they moved in 2001, their monthly payment has more than doubled to nearly $3,900 a month — a predicament that arose because of an ill-advised refinancing into a loan whose terms the federal government now deems predatory.
The couple have never missed a mortgage payment. But now they are struggling to hold on. They have pulled their two pre-teen daughters out of private school. They bought inexpensive used cars. Instead of going on vacation last summer, they took the girls to Six Flags America, a nearby amusement park. They have little saved for college or retirement.
“We’re paying and paying, but we can’t get ahead,” Jennifer said.