Thursday, December 15, 2011

A Different Kind of "Giant Sucking Sound"

Note: Nonprofit Thursdays will resume in January.

I attended the Cleveland Realtists Association’s holiday party this past Tuesday at The Opus, an MBE restaurant on Chagrin Boulevard. Spirits were high and the place was packed.

The Realtists’ history date to a time when black real estate agents and brokers were barred from membership in the larger professional organization now known as the Cleveland Area Board of Realtors. If memory serves, the segregation was once so thorough that blacks in real estate couldn’t even call themselves realtors because the dominant group copyrighted the term.

This kind of history rests at the bottom of so much of what we see today in our non-post-racial society. The black community is full of organizations that shadow those larger professional organizations that excluded black members as a matter of course. The use of “American” in the titles of these majority organizations as a matter of course is why so many black organizations chose “National” as part of their identity: National Bar Association, National Medical Association, National Association of Real Estate Brokers, etc.

While this kind of in-your-face exclusion is no longer the norm, many African Americans still support these mirror groups. When I asked my agent friend “J” if she were a dues-paying Realtist member, she stressed that while she belonged to all the major agent groups, her Realtist ties “keep me grounded”.

J is an agent at one of the area’s major brokerages but I knew exactly what she meant. One of the key ingredients in Cleveland’s historic standing as one of the country’s most-segregated cities has been the structure, operation and practice of real estate professionals. The patterns and practices of the big firms have both contributed to and reflected the wealth disparity between the races in our community.

My key takeaway from my conversation with J was only indirectly related to race, however. It was her intriguing response to my asking how business was going.

J said that 2011 had been much better than 2010 [“Thank Goodness!”] and that one of the best aspects of that improvement was how sales had improved in the inner city. She believes that a strong central city real estate market is critical to the recovery and health of county property values in general. She cited San Francisco and New York as examples.

Of course, those areas are net attractors of people, something that hasn’t been true in decades around these parts. Still, it makes sense that inner city reinvestment is essential to Cuyahoga revival.

It is unarguable is that the meltdown of property values in areas targeted by subprime vultures — Slavic Village, East Cleveland, Maple Heights to name a few — harmed the entire county at least twofold: not only did pretty much everybody’s property values decrease, but lost revenues from abandoned homes has caused city and county revenues to decline even as demand for public services has increased.

As conservatives continue to espouse discredited ‘trickle-down” theories, perhaps they ought to school themselves on the effects of “economic contagion” that are a predictable result of robber baron economics.

If a rising tide lifts all boats, doesn’t a fierce undertow jeopardize at least 99% of them?

As one of my Asian correspondents asked me this morning in a phone conversation: why isn’t Jon Corzine in jail related to his inability to account for $1.2 billion in missing client funds [video]? And if you think that's where the former Governor-Senator-Wall Street funds trader should be, then why shouldn't the principals of the giant financial institutions who stole far more from the rest of us?

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