Last month, I took a trip to the Oak Park Avenue office of Oak Park Township Assessor Ali ElSaffar to talk about property tax assessments. I wanted his opinion about why the Vantage Oak Park Apartments at 150 Forest Ave. were assessed at $90 million by Oak Parker and Cook County Township Assessor Fritz Kaegi and, after the owners appealed, nearly half that by the Cook County Board of Review.
The conversation, however, veered into much deeper territory. In a nutshell, ElSaffar said, the differences may come down to appraisals and which factors appraisers are prioritizing in the process of making their valuations. Appraisals are called opinions of value for a reason, he said.
ElSaffar has personal experience with how perceptions of value can affect the price of property. He said things like racial and class bias can play critical parts in how “the market” determines worth.
“It’s sort of funny living on Austin Boulevard and talking about this,” he said. “I see it. I’ve had people who are afraid to come to my house. It’s like, ‘Oh, come on.’ But it happens. So, yes, that influences market values.”
The conversation with ElSaffar prompted me to revisit an essay I’d read years ago by the historian David M.P. Freund. In “Marketing the Free Market: State Intervention and the Politics of Prosperity in Metropolitan America,” Freund punctures one of the most potent myths in the American dreamscape — one best articulated by former Fox commentator Bill O’Reilly on the night Barack Obama was re-elected president.
“The white establishment is now the minority,” a shell-shocked O’Reilly said. “And the voters, many of them, feel that the economic system is stacked against them and they want stuff. You are going to see a tremendous Hispanic vote for President Obama. Overwhelming black vote for President Obama. And women will probably break President Obama’s way. People feel that they are entitled to things and which candidate between the two is going to give them things?”
This was said by a man who was born and raised in public housing — Levittown, New York, which, as comedian Jon Stewart reminded O’Reilly in 2014, gave the Fox host a stable home that required no down payments, was subsidized by the federal government and exclusive to whites.
According to a Washington Post article that quotes from Marvin Kitman’s biography of O’Reilly, “all a prospective buyer needed to buy one of the original Levitt ‘ranch’ houses, sales prices at $7,990, was a $90 deposit and payments of $58 a month.’”
This denialism isn’t unique to O’Reilly or conservatives. The denialism is bipartisan, affecting whites (and more than a few Blacks) across ideological lines. Freund writes that the myth about the race-neutral free market is popular in America, partly because the federal government itself has conspired to propagate it.
“In addition to creating wealth for some while helping to marginalize others, federal intervention also helped create and popularize a unique postwar political narrative that obscured the origins of race and class inequality in the modern metropolis,” the historian explains.
“Paradoxically, the state helped popularize the myth that its policies did not facilitate suburban growth and did not contribute to new metropolitan patterns of inequality. Instead it insisted that ‘free market’ forces, alone, were responsible for the gulf — economic and increasingly, spatial — that separate the nation’s haves from its have-nots.”
Freund writes it’s well known (at least among historians) that the new federal credit programs created in the 1930s, particularly programs operated by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), made “homeownership affordable for most white people after World War II.”
Take a look at the FHA’s underwriting manuals from the 1930s and 1940s. Up until the 1950s, the FHA endorsed race-restrictive covenants in mortgages, which essentially prohibited whites from selling or leasing their homes to non-whites.
After the 1950s, explicit racial restrictions were removed from underwriting manuals, but the agency still actively supported racial discrimination in housing “well into the 1960s and thus excluded most racial minorities from the robust new market for homeownership,” Freund writes.
Despite the government’s blatant race-based social engineering, which propped up the whites-only private market for homes, most New Dealers were trying “to convince business groups and fiscally conservative congressmen — and, perhaps, even themselves — that the government’s unprecedented interventions in the U.S. economy were not cutting a path toward ‘state control’ of private enterprise.”
The government used language like “free market for homes” in various FHA promotional campaigns, even describing the agency as “a helper only” in one pamphlet. One of the FHA’s most visible PR efforts targeting consumers and businessmen in towns across America was its “Better-Housing Campaign,” which started in 1934.
Freund describes the campaign as a multimillion-dollar effort to stimulate both home improvement and new home construction by educating people on federal insurance opportunities, as well as on the myth that the revival in the housing market “was being driven solely by the forces of supply and demand.”
In other cases, Freund explains, the government’s impact was less direct, with whites reproducing FHA talking points in their conversations about protecting their suburban communities.
“Residents read local news coverage describing the postwar housing boom as the fruit of free enterprise and describing public housing as an unwarranted strain on the market, no doubt unaware that these columns often originated as industry or government-produced press releases.”
The effect, over decades of aggressively marketing this lie, was the intellectual basis among white businesspeople and consumers for “what seemed a sensible and specifically nonracial defense of racial exclusion. Indeed, FHA officials were among the first to invoke the free market narrative specifically for this purpose when challenged by civil rights activists to abandon the agency’s discriminatory practices.
“Indignant at the charge that federal programs were discriminating by race, housing officials countered that they were merely respecting the demands of the free market for property,” Freund explains.
Following the FHA’s lead, white suburbanites, blind to how their own advantages came at the expense of minorities, took to defending racial exclusion and all kinds of obviously egregious racially disparate outcomes “solely by citing market imperatives” and supposedly empirical economic principles.
I don’t think O’Reilly was merely hypocritical when he denounced all of those non-white “takers” in 2012. I think like a lot of whites, the freedom-loving, market-worshipping former Fox talking head had been genuinely fooled by government propaganda.
How’s that for irony?