Don't Bother Looking for a Place to Rent in DCRoundup
tags: housing, inequality, rent
Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of Mainstreaming Torture, American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes and is now at work on a new book on the history of torture in the United States.
In 1937, the American folklorist Alan Lomax invited Louisiana folksinger Huddie Ledbetter (better known as Lead Belly) to record some of his songs for the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Lead Belly and his wife Martha searched in vain for a place to spend a few nights nearby. But they were Black and no hotel would give them shelter, nor would any Black landlord let them in, because they were accompanied by Lomax, who was white. A white friend of Lomax’s finally agreed to put them up, although his landlord screamed abuse at him and threatened to call the police.
In response to this encounter with D.C.’s Jim Crow laws, Lead Belly wrote a song, “The Bourgeois Blues,” recounting his and Martha’s humiliation and warning Blacks to avoid the capital if they were looking for a place to live. The chorus goes,
“Lord, in a bourgeois town
It’s a bourgeois town
I got the bourgeois blues
Gonna spread the news all around”
And one verse adds,
“I want to tell all the colored people to listen to me
Don’t ever try to get a home in Washington, D.C.
‘Cause it’s a bourgeois town”
Such affronts, Lead Belly sang, occurred in the “home of the brave, land of the free,” where he didn’t want “to be mistreated by no bourgeoisie.”
There are music scholars who believe that Lead Belly didn’t really understand what “bourgeois” meant. They claim Lomax, later accused of being a Communist “fellow traveler,” provided him with that addition to his vocabulary and he simply understood it as a synonym for “racist.” Personally, I think that, in a few deft verses, Lead Belly managed to show how racism and class stratification merged to make it all but impossible to find a home in Washington, as in so many other places in America.
In the late 1970s, after a period of unemployment, my mother got a job for a year in Washington. We’d lived there while I was growing up, but she hadn’t been back for almost a decade. She was a white middle-class professional and it was still hell finding an affordable place to rent. (She’d been without a job for more than a year.) It would be some time before credit ratings would be formalized, thanks to the financial corporation FICO, producing a model of a standardized credit score for anyone. But her prospective landlords had other ways of checking on her creditworthiness. That she was a divorced woman with no rental history and no recent jobs didn’t make things easy.
Still, she had her sense of humor. One day during that search, she mailed me an old 45 rpm recording of Lead Belly’s “Bourgeois Blues.” It seemed to perfectly catch her frustrated efforts to escape a friend’s guest room before she wore out her welcome.
I was reminded of that record recently when I read about the travails of Maxwell Alejandro Frost, a new Democratic congressman from Orlando, Florida. Born in 1996, he’s the youngest member of the House of Representatives. He quit his full-time job to campaign for Congress, supporting himself by driving an Uber. When he tried to find a home in Washington, his application for a studio apartment was rejected because of a bad credit score. As Frost tweeted:
“Just applied to an apartment in DC where I told the guy that my credit was really bad. He said I’d be fine. Got denied, lost the apartment, and the application fee.
This ain’t meant for people who don’t already have money.”
Nor, as Lead Belly might have added, for people like Frost who are Black.
Washington, D.C., it seems, remains a “bourgeois” town.