Comfort Boateng sorts through two large boxes of mortgage and financial papers as she talks about their financial situation on Aug. 18 in Bowie. The Boatengs hadn't made a mortgage payment in nearly six years. (Michel du Cille/The Washington Post )
Columnist

Tough break for Prince George’s County, the predominantly black Washington suburb targeted by predatory lenders to such a degree that it earned the distinction of having the highest foreclosure rate in the region. It didn’t matter that the vast majority of homeowners were on financially solid ground; too many newcomers had fallen for those “ticking time bomb” subprime loans, and the result affected everyone.

How county residents, myself included, could recoup lost home equity was the subject of a town hall meeting last week in Bowie. If nothing else, those attending should have learned some hard lessons about race and market capitalism.

“I bought my home 24 years ago for $203,000, and today it’s worth $300,000” said Sandra Pruitt, executive director of People for Change Coalition, a nonprofit organization that assesses the viability of minority-owned businesses in Prince George’s. “If my home had been in some other jurisdiction, the value would have tripled.”

What’s with this notion that I could have my equity back if only I lived in “another jurisdiction,” meaning one of the Washington area’s predominantly white counties, or the District, which is gentrifying and where the population of whites is rapidly increasing?

“Regardless of geography, if you own a home in a majority-minority neighborhood, you are going to get less value out of it than if you own a home in a homogeneous white neighborhood,” Dorothy A. Brown, a law professor at Emory University who studies the impact of race on home prices said in a Washington Post series about the impact of the subprime mortgage fiasco in Prince George’s. “This transcends class.”

[Read more on how Prince George’s residents watched their wealth vanish during the housing crisis.]

Are we supposed to go chasing white people all over the Washington area so the value of their whiteness can rub off on our homes?

Ruth Wright, former president-elect of the Prince George’s Association of Realtors, proposed a moratorium on home construction to drive up demand for homes. In the 1990s, she recalled, then-county executive Wayne Curry (D) called a halt to townhouse construction. His goal was to reduce the number of renters and get more single-family homes — and more property-tax-paying homeowners — into the county.

It worked, and Prince George’s countered the kind of economic drain that usually results from white flight. It remains the only county in the country to go from predominantly white to predominantly black where level of education and income increased.

But, as The Post series laid out, homeowners in the county lost billions in equity when the housing market crashed. The ruthlessness of the racial targeting was more detailed in a New Republic article by Dean Starkman in March last year.

“Obviously, the story of the crisis transcends race — whites on the whole were more likely to undergo foreclosure than blacks — but there’s also no disentangling race from the broader trends,” Starkman wrote. “It is a matter of historical record that some minority communities were excluded from the credit system for decades through the policy known as redlining. And that, beginning in the ’90s, those same communities were inundated by a new, heavily marketed, risky mortgage product, which we would later come to know as subprime. Activists accurately called this process ‘reverse redlining’ and (even more accurately) ‘predatory lending.’ ”

Glenn Ivey, a former Prince George’s state’s attorney and resident of Cheverly, told the town hall gathering that the county’s housing market was improving and that Realtors were successfully “micro marketing” certain neighborhoods.

However, as Pruitt noted, the county is not likely to get its groove back until there are further reductions in crime and vast improvements in the public schools, especially elementary schools. “I spoke to one business person who’d visited a high school and came away saying, ‘They don’t talk, dress or act right,’ ” Pruitt said.

Ivey recalled that the District used to have similar problems.

“Home values in D.C. are rising because of an obvious effort to tear down public housing and low-income housing,” he said. But Ivey pointed out that in doing so, many of those displaced people were pushed toward Prince George’s County.

That may have helped the District to boost its economic status, but it doesn’t help Prince George’s County. And it certainly doesn’t help those people who’ve been priced out.

So that was the problem, as some saw it: too few whites on one hand, too many poor blacks on the other. Do we woo more whites — or shoo more blacks? Or just do both and be certain to get that equity back, just as Washington did?

Ruth Wright was incorrectly identified in an earlier version of this column as the past president of the Prince George’s Association of Realtors. She was a former president-elect of the association.