For Adair, and her four brothers and sisters, the house their father built was a foundation, even in rocky economic times. When Pastor Caldwell injured his back working as a janitor at a department store, he began looking for other ways to support his family. His wife, Lena Caldwell, worked as a hospital housekeeper and at a laundromat, but it paid small wages, and he found jobs for him were scarce in the area. When he heard of a laundromat for sale 30 miles away in the town of Monroe, Caldwell sold the house, used the money to buy the business, and put a down payment on a new home.
"The house made all that possible," Caldwell says. He and Lena Caldwell both worked at the laundromat. And the business brought them enough income to provide their five children with what Adair described as a "basically middle-class life," until in the 1980's when Billy Caldwell became a full-time pastor.
In the decades that followed, Mr. Caldwell's children followed his example. Two of his sons, who worked in a Louisiana factory, put down payments on homes of their own. And when Adair married and had children, she and her family moved to Milwaukee where she took a job as a teacher and took out a mortgage on a modest three-bedroom house across the street from a playground on Milwaukee's north side.
"I thought about it as something that would be in the family and would be an investment for the family," Adair says. "That's how it was growing up — an investment."
But the events of the next decade turned her investment into a loss. When Adair and her husband divorced in 2003, she began to struggle to meet the monthly payments, especially in the summer when school was out. She refinanced the mortgage, which lightened her monthly burden, but two years later, she says the mortgage bills exploded to $1,400 each month. Adair had been sold a predatory refinancing loan; the kind that lenders pushed on many borrowers, especially blacks and Latinos, and later helped tank the economy.
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Last year, Adair, who by then had become the principal of a Milwaukee high school, narrowly avoided foreclosure through a short sale. Though she was earning a solid middle class income of about $100,000 a year, she was supporting herself through graduate school and one of her sons through college, plus paying a growing mortgage.
"It was just not possible anymore," she said.
Two of her brothers in Louisiana had similar stories. When the Louisiana company where they worked shut its doors, the brothers separately fell behind on their mortgage payments. Their houses soon slipped into foreclosure. In search of work, one moved to Texas. Both are now renters.
"I tried to help. We wanted to keep those houses in the family, but we just couldn't," Pastor Caldwell says.
Adair estimates that in her case, the short sale stripped her of $60,000 in equity, nearly all her wealth at the time. She's like many families in this regard: assets are overwhelmingly concentrated in home equity. This is especially true for African American families who on average hold less than a tenth of the assets and savings of white families and are more likely to have invested the savings they do have into their houses.
"I thought a lot about the home as something my kids could have later," Adair said, of her sons, a 26-year-old who works in Milwaukee, a 19-year-old in college and a 17-year-old who still lives at home and is finishing high school.