ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:
To illustrate the problem, NPR's Alex Kellogg takes us to Prince George's County, Maryland. It is by far the wealthiest majority black county in the U.S. And yet, as Alex reports, it is the site of nearly 40 percent of homes in Maryland in some stage of foreclosure.
ALEX KELLOGG: Erek Barron is a lawyer who spends his spare time helping people stay in their homes.
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KELLOGG: But he can't drive a block in his own upscale neighborhood without passing a foreclosed property.
EREK BARRON: Right there.
KELLOGG: Right next to your house.
KELLOGG: Barron has his own law practice and is on the board of several Maryland nonprofits that help people stay in their homes. He lives in the suburb of Washington, D.C. well known as a haven for black doctors, lawyers and well-paid government workers, among others. But like most parts of Prince George's, today, even his neighborhood of up-and-comers is teeming with foreclosures. Barron drove me by a golf course full of weeds in a rich subdivision near his.
BARRON: When you live in a golf course community and the golf course is in foreclosure, it's a huge problem.
KELLOGG: It's a huge problem that's just gaining momentum in Prince George's. The county's foreclosure crisis was already bad, but it got far worse late last year and hasn't eased up. Many people who live here are wealthy blacks who moved out of a poorer and more dangerous D.C. in the '80s and '90s. At the time, Prince George's was majority white. Today, it's about two-thirds black.
BILL SERMONS: It's one of the few counties in the country where it's become more affluent as it's become blacker.
KELLOGG: Before the recession, blacks were making slow but steady gains on whites. In recent years, those gains have not just been eroded but erased.
SERMONS: Seeing that rate of foreclosure in Prince George's County does represent a problem for the whole nation and what it means for our middle class African-American communities.
KELLOGG: What it means is even some better-off blacks are slipping into poverty. Blacks are also far more likely to have been pushed into a subprime mortgage than whites and are more likely to have a higher interest rate on a home loan than even a white person with a similar income and credit history. That's part of the reason Prince George's is hurting. More bad loans were handed out here than in any other part of the state, and more mortgage fraud cases have been convicted here than anywhere else in Maryland.
CLYDE JACKSON: I guess that was the biggest hurt of all, you know, when you build up something and then all of a sudden you lose it. Yeah, it takes a toll on you.
KELLOGG: Clyde Jackson wasn't a victim of predatory lending. He didn't get duped into accepting a high interest rate or an adjustable one. He was just unlucky. His wife took a pay cut several years ago, and then suddenly, they couldn't afford their three-bedroom home.
JACKSON: Because of the strain that it began to put on me after fighting with Wells Fargo, it was like, I just had to let it go, because the longer I fought with it, tried to deal with it, the more of a headache it was beginning to be.
KELLOGG: People across the county say the growing number of vacant homes chips away at Prince George's luster. But that doesn't mean people here like talking about home loss. They don't. In fact, it's a very taboo subject. Erek Barron says many here think the area doesn't get the retail stores, the public services or even the recognition that nearby wealthy white suburbs do.
BARRON: When you compare the kind of development, businesses, tax base that those areas have as compared to Prince George's, it doesn't make a lot of sense.
KELLOGG: Back on our drive, Barron said what also doesn't make sense is people here too often refusing to seek help. Residents say that's because black Americans tend to be more private, and here in Prince George's, more prideful. Alex Kellogg, NPR News, Washington.
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