Why Black homeownership thrives in this special pocket of New York City

In a nation with a history of racist housing policies, this community became an enduring exception—and a point of pride.

Black families began moving to the St. Albans area in Queens, New York, in the 1930s, despite restrictions that were designed to keep them from buying homes there. In 1948 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racial restrictions couldn’t be enforced.

Growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, Olney Marie Ryland enjoyed visiting her aunt’s house in Addisleigh Park, the most exclusive section of St. Albans, Queens. The neighborhood was only a mile from her family’s home, but it exposed her to an entirely new world of high society, culture, and the arts.

“I used to think, That is where the rich people live,” says Ryland, now 71.

Ryland’s aunt lived in a wide-line Cape Cod with a before-its-time open-concept design, customized by her architect husband. Ryland’s mother also had a friend who lived in the community, across the street from William “Count” Basie, the legendary jazz pianist and composer. Sometimes Ryland was invited to swim in Basie’s pool.

In 1997, after her aunt turned frail and her home became available for purchase, Ryland and her husband jumped at the chance to buy it, swooping in just ahead of an investor. “The place has always been in my life,” she says. “Thank God we were able to get it.”

As it happened, the Rylands not only scored a beautiful home but also joined a rich tradition of Black homeownership that has thrived in and around St. Albans since the late 1930s—despite a series of racist policies aimed at keeping Black people out of the neighborhood.

They are obstacles that African Americans faced for generations when they tried to buy a home, a traditional gateway to prosperity for many Americans. Racial covenants once banned Black homeownership in St. Albans. After courts struck down those barriers, Black homeowners often faced harassment and even threats of violence from their white neighbors.

For decades, the federal government promoted racial segregation by redlining neighborhoods where Black people and other minorities lived, marking them as unacceptable loan risks for government-backed mortgages and effectively starving them of capital needed to buy and improve homes. Black prospective homeowners were denied loans for houses in mostly white areas, charged higher fees for loans, or pushed to buy homes where mostly minorities lived. These practices depressed Black homeownership, making it more expensive or more difficult for African Americans to buy houses.

By the time redlining was outlawed by the Fair Housing Act in 1968, white homeowners routinely were fleeing neighborhoods they felt were becoming too Black. More recently, banks and mortgage brokers targeted Black neighborhoods with subprime loans that had onerous fees and interest rates, contributing to a housing price bubble that spawned a foreclosure crisis once the bubble burst.

That long history of systemic racism has led to predictable results. Black people are far less likely than white people to own homes. And for Black homeowners, the experience often is more perilous: Houses in Black neighborhoods typically are worth less than those in white neighborhoods, making it harder for Black homeowners to build the kind of wealth that would allow them to pay for home improvements or weather job losses and other economic shocks.

“We can’t circumvent the fact that [African Americans’] ability to buy homes was highly racialized from the start,” says Anne Price, president of the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, which researches economic justice. “There was a very intentional exclusion of Black people from vehicles that allowed white people to buy homes and build equity from those homes. And that history is still very much a part of what we’re seeing today.”

At the end of 2019, the Black homeownership rate was 42 percent, while 70 percent of white families lived in homes they owned. The 28 percentage point gap between Black and white homeowners was two points larger than the gap in 1960.

In the housing bust that triggered the 2008 recession, African Americans across the country lost nearly a quarter million homes. The housing crisis devastated Black families, causing the typical household to lose more than half its wealth. No racial group escaped unscathed, but African Americans have suffered lasting damage from the downturn. Their rates of homeownership continued to decline for more than a decade. Preliminary data had hinted at a rebound in 2019—not long before the coronavirus pandemic delivered yet another economic blow.

The homeownership divide is a major contributor to the nation’s staggering racial wealth gap. Homes are the largest source of wealth accumulation for most Americans, and that’s especially true for African Americans, who are less likely than white people to own other financial assets such as individual stocks or mutual funds.

The Federal Reserve Board’s 2019 Survey of Consumer Finances found that a typical non-Hispanic white family in the U.S. had a net worth of $188,200, nearly eight times the wealth of a typical Black family.

The wealth gap between white and Black families is much larger than the income gap, and that difference “is entirely attributable to unconstitutional federal housing policy that was practiced in the mid-20th century,” says Richard Rothstein, whose 2017 book, The Color of Law, details many of the ways that racially explicit policies and actions by all levels of government excluded Black people from much of the housing market. “And the wealth gap locks African Americans even today into neighborhoods that are less well resourced than those whites live in.”

Housing and Urban Development (HUD) secretary Marcia Fudge says the U.S. government is determined to enact policies to close the wealth gap. A big part of that, she says, is ensuring that high-quality homeownership opportunities are available to Black families at affordable interest rates. The Federal Housing Administration has updated its loan criteria to make it easier for prospective buyers with student loan debt to get federally insured mortgages. That should help Black buyers, who are disproportionately burdened with student debt.

“We’re going to do everything we possibly can to make sure that every single person has an opportunity to build wealth for their families,” Fudge said in late June. “We have never fully embraced the Fair Housing Act in this country; today, we’re doing that.”

The long, difficult history endured by Black homeowners makes what’s happened for the better part of a century in the St. Albans area all the more remarkable. “St. Albans tells America’s fair housing story in microcosm,” says Bryan Greene, a former HUD official who’s now a vice president at the National Association of Realtors.

The first subdivisions in the community were on the drawing board by the turn of the 20th century, around the time that New York City’s five boroughs were consolidated into a single city. Addisleigh Park was part of an early wave of development, says Greene, a St. Albans native. The enclave was modeled after English garden suburbs, with wide, tree-lined streets and sturdy colonial and Tudor homes set back on large, landscaped lots. A golf course was built in the neighborhood in 1915. It drew celebrities including legendary New York Yankees slugger Babe Ruth, who reportedly rented a home nearby.

Addisleigh Park was swank and, early on, exclusively white. A 1926 New York Times article about the sale of building lots said the neighborhood “carries a land and house restriction of the highest type.” In the 1930s and ’40s such indirect barriers were replaced by racial covenants with explicit rules: No Black people were allowed.

The restrictions eventually gave way, first informally, then legally. Pianist Thomas “Fats” Waller is credited with being among the first African Americans to buy a house in Addisleigh Park, moving there in 1938. Other Black homeowners soon followed. But in 1942, white residents sued a woman who was trying to sell her home to a Black man, saying the transaction would violate the agreement the prospective seller had signed banning sales to Black people.

The restriction initially was upheld in court, but it was struck down in 1948 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled enforcement of restrictive covenants unconstitutional.

After that, more African Americans moved into the neighborhood. Through the years, Black luminaries including singer Lena Horne, baseball icon Jackie Robinson, civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, soul music superstar James Brown, and hip-hop pioneer LL Cool J have lived in St. Albans.

In the ensuing decades, the celebrities were joined by other upwardly mobile African Americans in southeast Queens. Bus drivers and plumbers, mail carriers and subway motormen, airport cargo handlers, corrections officers, teachers, principals, cops, and municipal clerks moved to the area, helping to transform it into one of the nation’s largest and most vibrant centers of Black homeownership. But the change came with the type of struggle painfully familiar to Black homeowners across the country.

Barbara Eubanks moved to St. Albans with her family from Brooklyn in 1961. She remembers a beautiful, quiet neighborhood. But there were pockets of white hostility. Black-owned homes were sometimes pelted with eggs, and the new neighbors occasionally would be treated rudely by the old-timers.

“They would say things, call us names,” recalls Eubanks, 73, a retired city traffic enforcement officer who still lives in St. Albans. “But basically we just ignored them.”

Before long, she says, the white folks were gone anyway. “They moved, running—whether they could afford it or not.” More Black families moved in, creating a modern enclave of Black middle-class life. The schools that would eventually educate her grandson, Elias Williams, who photographed this story, became more segregated.

Despite the challenges, southeast Queens was a powerful magnet for African Americans looking to buy a home with a little land around it.

In 1965, my parents pursued their version of the American dream when they bought a detached home in Springfield Gardens, not far from St. Albans. They’d owned a small row house in East Elmhurst, on the north side of Queens just across the bridge from our previous apartment in Harlem. We were a working-class family, and buying in southeast Queens was a step up.

At first, our block and the surrounding community were mostly white. That changed quickly. Within two or three years, nearly all the white families had moved, leaving the neighborhood overwhelmingly Black with young families in almost every home. That suited me just fine. Our summers were filled with street games from skelly to box ball and tag games from ring-a-levio to manhunt. We played dodgeball at day camp, touch football in the street, basketball, stickball, and handball at the playground, and we went on long bike rides. We avoided areas where you might be attacked for being Black, but that was easy because you could go several miles in most directions and still be in a Black neighborhood.

It wasn’t until many years later that I realized that our homes were not worth as much as almost identical houses in nearby white communities. It wasn’t just my old neighborhood. A 2018 study led by Brookings Institution researcher Andre Perry found that “homes of similar quality in neighborhoods with similar amenities are worth 23 percent less ($48,000 per home on average, amounting to $156 billion in cumulative losses) in majority Black neighborhoods, compared to those with very few or no Black residents.” The report made clear that there’s a tax on Black homeowners that has continued, in one form or another.

Growing up in an apartment in the South Jamaica Houses, a low-income development known locally as the 40 Projects, Loree Sebastien knew a different world was just two miles away in St. Albans. It was a world of sturdy homes and manicured lawns, owned by Black folks.

Sebastien’s mother would drive her and her sister through the neighborhood, pointing out homes where Black celebrities once lived. Those drives planted a seed in her mind that blossomed once she became an adult and bought a three-bedroom colonial in St. Albans two decades ago. “I just grew up hearing that there is a rich legacy here, that you might not find a cluster of Black homeowners like this anywhere in the country,” says Sebastien, 48, a computer programmer. “When I moved here, I knew I was moving up.”

She wasn’t disappointed when she moved in. The streets were immaculate, the neighbors friendly. “It is a prosperous, supportive place that is more quiet, nicer, neater than I thought.”

Sebastien busied herself updating her home. She decorated each room in a different ethnic theme. She has a Japanese bedroom and Chinese and Mexican bathrooms. But soon enough, she learned things were not as idyllic as they appeared. When the foreclosure crisis hit several years after she bought her home, Sebastien was stunned by how many people in the neighborhood were hurt by the fallout.

“I am upper middle class, and to have to go through this was amazingly shocking,” she says. “It was like being in the projects again, watching neighbors being evicted. It decimated the area.”

At one point, her own mortgage servicer mistakenly began moving her property toward foreclosure. She hired a lawyer who quickly found the problem: a paperwork error made when her mortgage changed hands among several companies after she bought her home. “If you didn’t have my background and the money to hire a lawyer, who knows what would have happened?” she says.

Many of Sebastien’s neighbors suffered much crueler fates, as did many Black homeowners across the country. Southeast Queens was the area of New York City hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis, which was directly linked to the high number of subprime home loans made in the years before the housing bubble burst.

In 2006, 60 percent of all new home loans in the greater St. Albans area were high-cost loans, compared with 23 percent citywide, according to New York University’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. Many homeowners had been lured into expensive subprime loans with high interest rates even though they could have qualified for less expensive mortgages.

“With predatory mortgages, we are always grinding to keep up,” says I. Daneek Miller, a New York City council member representing southeast Queens. Miller, a former bus driver and union leader, says he has tried to help many families in mortgage distress. Despite a patchwork of government programs aimed at helping people avert foreclosure, he says, too often people showed up so late in the process that they were beyond help.

“Early on, I think people are embarrassed,” he says. “Then they don’t reach out until the marshal is at the door.”

The situation in southeast Queens was repeated nationally. From 2007 to 2015, homes in Black communities were twice as likely to tumble into foreclosure as those in white communities, according to the real estate firm Zillow.

Through it all, Miller says, southeast Queens has remained a center of Black homeownership. New affordable condominiums are now luring young buyers, and many people raised in family-owned homes there have continued the tradition.

“This is the enclave of homeownership in the city,” Miller says. “We have such a rich, rich legacy, and we have to keep it up.”

Keith Brown and Geri Taylor-Brown grew up in St. Albans, beginning in the mid-1950s. Early in their marriage, they lived in a nearby 20-building housing cooperative called Rochdale Village. But they wanted a home with a yard, and they looked to buy in their old neighborhood.

“Both of us were raised in houses, and we wanted to return to that,” says Geri, 68, a retired school superintendent.

Many of their friends moved to towns in Nassau County, but the Browns wanted to uphold the tradition they grew up in.

“At the time, I had a real strong belief that when Black neighborhoods went down, it was because we abandoned them rather than staying and making it a better place,” says Keith, 71, a retired bus driver who for more than 50 years has coached and helped manage high school and youth football teams.

They got a taste of the challenges Black homeowners face after buying their three-bedroom colonial in 1988. The boiler went out, and they had little cash, having poured it all into their new home. They applied for a loan to cover the $3,000 repair bill but were turned down by one lender after another. Eventually they borrowed the money from Keith’s parents. “We later learned that Black homeowners were being rejected for loans based on their zip code,” Geri says.

The couple raised their three children in St. Albans, and now the children, their spouses, and 11 grandchildren are regular visitors.

The Browns have seen residents and businesses come and go. They’ve watched an influx of neighbors from the Caribbean and South Asia. They were alarmed by all the homes that turned over because of foreclosures, and by investors who crowded two-family houses onto small lots.

This year they put their home up for sale, saying that as they age, their stairs are becoming difficult to navigate. But St. Albans will always be home.

“People can’t start talking to us about where we live without us starting to brag,” Geri says. “I let them know I was born in Harlem Hospital and I live in St. Albans. So don’t mess with me.”

Michael Fletcher, a senior writer with ESPN, spent his formative years in southeast Queens. Elias Williams is a New York-based photographer whose work honors the cultural and historical significance of those in underrepresented communities.

This story appears in the October 2021 issue of National Geographic magazine.

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