‘Legally stolen’: WBEZ panel explains how land sale contracts stole a generation of black homeowners

The sign puts it bluntly: “This house at 6823 S. Aberdeen was legally stolen from the black couple Mr. and Mrs. James and Lula Malone on October 30, 1963 in a widespread land sale contract scam.” Located in front of the property in question, a vacant house in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, the scene tells an even greater tale of iniquity. The one that is current and integrated into the block.

Local artist and activist Tonika Lewis Johnson installed this sign, along with others across Englewood, as part of a project called ‘Inequity for Sale’. Aiming to expose how the effect of land sale contracts in the 1950s and 1960s can still be seen today, Johnson’s work has grabbed headlines. And his recent podcast “Legally Stolen” gives listeners an even deeper historical dive.

Produced in collaboration with the National Public Housing Museum (NPHM), “Legally Stolen” is a three-part podcast that culminated in a live event on April 28, presented by WBEZ at King-Kennedy College. There, Johnson was joined on stage by co-host Tiff Beatty, NPHM’s director of programming, as well as two expert panelists: Amber Hendley, co-author of “The Plunder of Black Wealth in Chicago,” and Marisa Novara, commissioner of the Chicago Department of Housing.

The History of Land Sale Contracts in Chicago

The evening at King-Kennedy College began with an explanation of the practice in question: land sale contracts, widespread in black Chicago neighborhoods in the 1950s and 1960s. As local black families were excluded from bank mortgages traditional due to redlining, these contract sales were an apparent alternative. They offered the illusion of mortgage payments, but without any of the typical protections.

As part of the first stage of the contracting process, real estate speculators snapped up houses with low land values. Amid the so-called “white flight,” these homes were bought cheaply, often from families desperate to leave increasingly non-white neighborhoods. Then the homes were sold “under contract” to incoming black families for an average markup of 84%. But the contracts were a scam.

In addition to the high value of each home under contract, monthly payments were set at a high interest rate with no equity. And if landlords defaulted on even a single bill, they could — and often did — legally lose the property, along with everything paid into it.

In total, more than 600 homes in Greater Englewood have been sold under land sale agreements. See them scattered across Chicago’s South Side on the map below, courtesy of Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University

“The Looting of Black Wealth in Chicago”

Homes sold under contract in Greater Englewood between 1950 and 1975, from Johnson’s website.

The map, compiled for the study “The Plunder of Black Wealth in Chicago: New Findings on the Lasting Toll of Predatory Housing Contracts”, visually illustrates the wide range of land sale contract transactions. And it was this image that first inspired Johnson to create and plant his “Inequity for Sale” signs.

Johnson discussed the card — and the intense reaction it elicited in her — with fellow panelist Hendley on Thursday night. Hendley co-authored the study in 2019 and then personally coordinated with Johnson, providing the artist with a comprehensive list of addresses for land sale contract locations in Chicago.

And while her academic work garnered positive attention when it was published, Hendley said, it was Johnson’s signs that sparked public discourse. The “Inequity for Sale” project was featured in local media, from NBC 5 to Block Club Chicago, as it offered an unequivocal visual and physical representation of history. Like the map that inspired them, the panels highlight systemic inequity, Hendley explained, as opposed to the perception that abandoned or dilapidated homes are simply the result of the individual failures of their owners.

Hendley also offered a more comprehensive look at the impact of land sale contracts, based on digital data. As determined by ‘Plunder of Black Wealth’ researchers, a combined total of $3.6 billion was stolen from black property owners through land sale contracts (adjusted for inflation) . And that’s a decidedly low estimate, Hendley added, surmising that the number could well be closer to $4.6 billion.

This massive theft also deepened the racial wage gap, even more prevalent at the time, with black families earning 57 cents on the dollar from white families, Hendley said. As an obvious result, the quality of life was severely diminished in the affected neighborhoods. And yet, Hendley said, black landlords have maintained a default rate of just 17% despite their predatory contracts. A fact she attributed, in a particularly moving moment, to the resilience of black Chicagoans.

These statistics, along with their cultural implications, are discussed in more detail in the “Legally Stolen” podcast, available now on the NPHM website and other streaming platforms.