“Roadblock to the Middle Class” An Essay on the impact of Housing Insecurity in America by Jamil Ragland

by: Jamil Ragland

Is a borrowed home your own? PSC researcher Jamil Ragland gives us an inner look into his life experiences navigating housing in CT and offers his perspective on what he considers “luck” to escape the pitfalls that trap many Americans trying to find a home. 

Photo of Jamil RaglandPart 1

A home is more than where a person resides. It’s where friendships are formed, memories are made, and families grow. Fights, laughter, dinners, late-night gaming sessions, everything happens in the place we call home. It’s where life is lived, in the broadest sense of the word. And as a result, it has a profound impact on the kind of life that an individual experiences.

I’ve lived in more houses and apartments than I can count. Just like jobs and relationships though, some have had a larger impact on me than others. The history of the housing I’ve lived in, and the access I’ve had to different housing, is the history of my existence. Who I am is a product of where I come from, and why I come from there.

The early 1990’s is remembered as a violent time of gang conflict in the city of Hartford, especially in the south end.

Of course, housing does not simply determine where you live, or what kind of housing you live in. It also determines where you go to school- or in my case, where you can’t. The story of how housing segregation keeps people of color out of high-performing school districts is well documented. My experience was somewhat different though.

Our neighborhood school was R. J. Kinsella Elementary School. Long before it was known as a magnet school for the performing arts. Kinsella was simply another “failing” elementary school in the city. My parents decided that the legacy of housing segregation meant that I couldn’t go there, not if I wanted an education that would prepare me for my future. They took the only choice they realistically had and entered me into Project Concern.

According to the Cities, Suburbs and Schools Project at Trinity College, Project Concern was one of the first voluntary school desegregation programs in the United States. The program functioned by bussing Hartford students from “low-performing” schools in the city to “higher-performing” schools in the surrounding suburbs. The two major goals of the program were to diversify the overwhelmingly White suburban schools, and to provide Hartford students with a level of education they allegedly wouldn’t receive in the neighborhood schools.

I was accepted into the program. Instead of walking 500 feet from my home and enduring Kinsella’s dilapidated building and out of date textbooks, I would be bussed 15 miles away to Latimer Lane Elementary School in the Simsbury school district. My day started at 6:00 AM when I woke up to get dressed, eat breakfast and be driven across town in the morning traffic to the North End, where my bus stop was located on the corner of Blue Hills and Albany Avenues. There were a handful of other children there too. We were the “lucky” ones, the students who were being allowed to transcend our geographical boundaries and see how the other half lived and learned.

One of my strongest memories was the first time I visited the home of one of my Simsbury classmates. It stands out in my mind as a perfect day, with the sun beaming overhead in a crystal-clear sky. His home loomed in front of me as we approached. It was almost palatial, with a gleaming white fence surrounding the well-kept yard and multi-car garage. Inside, the ceiling soared above a living room which was almost as large as the entirety of the first floor of my apartment back home. It was my first time being in a White person’s house; I’d joined the Tiger Scouts, and our troop meetings were held at his house.

The median home price in Simsbury is $367,419, by the way. That’s nearly three times the median price of a home in Hartford.

I returned home to Van Block Avenue each night. Even if education was the great equalizer, it wouldn’t equalize anything for years. My parents still worked in low wage jobs which made leaving our apartment complex impossible. In that regard, my parents were like so many other parents living in the city.

The American Dream is not simply the possession of a bunch of material goods which define success- a house, a car, a boat. It’s the drive to build a better life for oneself and their family. It’s why my parents put me on a bus to Simsbury every morning, so that someday I would have something better. After my parents divorced, my mother decided that someday would be today. We were done living in apartments and being carted around Greater Hartford for a shot at opportunity. No more just visiting houses. We were going to have our own. But the realities of money and racial housing segregation constrained the choices that she was able to make. Still, there was one place where it was at least possible to make the dream a reality. That place was Bloomfield.

Bloomfield is one of the main destinations for upwardly mobile Black people moving out of Hartford. While it may appear that it’s simply the result of people choosing to live close to the city, Bloomfield’s demographics are in fact the result of a past racist practice known as blockbusting. As more Black families moved into Bloomfield, real estate agents convinced White families to move out of integrating neighborhoods, which they then turned around and sold to other Black families. Ultimately, this created a pattern of segregation which is not seen in official statistics of the town’s racial makeup. But at the street level, there are neighborhoods in Bloomfield that are completely Black, and those that are completely White. The segregation was especially prevalent in the town’s high school, where white flight had hollowed out the demographic makeup of the town’s families. Black families sent their children to the town’s public schools while the white families either left or sent their children to nearby private schools like Northwest Catholic.

Our home was in one of the Black neighborhoods which was adjacent to Hartford. The home we eventually moved into was almost 90 years old. The light blue paint was cracking and chipping on the sides. The drywall was sagging and crumbled under the slightest touch. There was no shower, just a clawfoot tub that was older than my mother. The fuses constantly blew under the strain of our modern electronics. But it was a house, with a yard. The neighbors lived in houses with yards too. The street was quiet and safe. Despite its shortcomings, it was miles better than where we’d come from. It was available due to the generosity of our family. The house had belonged to one of my great aunts. When she passed, the house fell to her sister, who leased it to us on extremely generous terms.

After a year of living at that house, my mother had saved enough money to take the next step and buy a home herself. To say that we were excited would be an understatement. Our own home! We moved only a few hundred yards away, but it felt like our new home and the old one was worlds apart. It felt good to be out in the suburbs and lay claim to the trappings of middle-class life that come only with a house in a certain area.

But pretensions to those trappings is not the same as having them. Living in a house is not the same as owning it, or even being able to afford it. The same forces that plagued my family and so many others- low pay, underemployment, poor benefits- were now compounded by the unforeseen costs of living in a house. The lawn had to be cared for. The snow shoveled. There was no landlord to rely on anymore, so we were on the hook for all the maintenance the new house needed. It bled heat in the winter and cool air in the summer, driving our energy costs through the roof. Compounding those challenges was the fact that living in a city made transportation easy, as the buses ran like clockwork. In the suburbs though, a car was a necessity, and became another persistent bill. This was my first experience with how much a house cost. It’s so much more than just rent.

Ultimately, it proved to be too much. After two years of struggling to make ends meet, the bank repossessed the house, and we were out on the streets. What followed were years of bouncing between different apartments, houses and family members as we tried to get back on our feet.

I started my childhood in Connecticut in an apartment in Hartford and ended it in an apartment in Bloomfield. On some level, I suppose that’s progress. But I promised myself that I would make more, do more when I was an adult and could make the critical decisions.

It’s funny what you think when you don’t know any better.

Read full essay–click here.

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