A Detroit daughter on generational wealth
When we talk about how families build generational wealth, home ownership is high on the list. But for Black Michiganders, clinging to a single family home isn’t an easy endeavor. In Detroit in particular, the profits that black families have made over generations have been wiped out by foreclosures, scams, and restricted access to credit.
In today’s podcast, Detroit poet Nandi Comer reflects on her family’s struggle to keep a home and inheritance in black families. Comer is an award-winning writer and directs the Seeds program for Allied Media Projects. She is also the co-director of Detroit Lit.
She recently wrote an essay for Detour Detroit about her efforts to keep her family home – and its financial legacy – on Mendota Street, west Detroit.
The Mendota House. I’m in the living room. The place where my great-grandmother’s oversized sofa once stood is surrounded by discarded magazines, stained mail and rubbish from former tenants. That should be all of me. It’s been five years since the heirs – my father and my two brothers – died and I will inherit everything.
Like many black Detroiters, the people in my family dream of creating wealth and passing it on to generations. I grew up with uncles who had secure jobs that gave them home opportunities and financial stability. They weren’t wealthy, nor did they spend much time managing their finances. As children, we rarely talked about wills or inheritance, or the waiting and heavy duties of fulfilling a family inheritance.
The Mendota House is located on the west side of Detroit. My great-grandmother, grandmother, and great-grandfather saved the money in 1967 to buy the house for $ 17,300. After years of working in various jobs, they had saved enough to pay a down payment on a house that could accommodate their entire family. Three generations of my family live in this house, including my father and his brothers.
The house was on a street in a promising neighborhood where many professionals had middle-class dreams of big cars and sent their children to college. I imagined that my great-grandparents and grandmother thought that the neighborhood with manicured lawns and colorful flower beds would be the foundation for generations to come. My father and his brothers were sent to desegregated schools, became high school football stars, and made classmates. You would join the military and benefit from the GI law.
Mendota House, her childhood home, was the family gathering place. They returned there to visit and celebrate Easter, other holidays, and large family gatherings. It would become a place to stay even if they didn’t have a home.
For my generation, the Mendota House was a magical place made of shiny crystal candy bowls and immaculate carpet. There was a china cabinet that contained a glass punch bowl set with 12 small matching mugs. The elders never left the house in jeans. The women wore ironed suits and white gloves to Sunday services and unwrapped ankle-length furs to Christmas dinner.
On my weekend visits to my father’s, I remember the tidy home for its calm, elderly rigidity. The back of great-grandmother’s closet was piled with dozens of shoeboxes, each with little shoes with their toes still filled with tissue paper. She covered the walls with elaborately framed family photos. Outside, the neighbors greeted each other from their verandas. Some stopped my father to find out about his brothers who had long since moved away. Some shared memories of growing up on a block.
Today many of these houses are filled with the children and grandchildren of these neighbors. Some of the flower beds even show traces of old shrubs planted years ago.
However, the Mendota House is empty. My grandmother, great-grandmother, and great-grandfather joined the ancestors. Before they crossed, they seemed to have taken care of all the details. The tombs, even the coffins, had been carefully selected and fully purchased. But the affairs of the Mendota House remained open. There were neither wills nor succession regulations. My father and his brothers didn’t know who owned the property or how to get a new deed.
While the details of the house were being clarified, it was decided in 2009 that my father would move into the Mendota House. Of the brothers, he was the one who visited the elders most often. He was the pseudo-family historian who remembered all of their stories and phone numbers. Most of all, he was the one who had looked after my great-grandmother in her last days.
This arrangement worked for a while, until it stopped working. Unfortunately, my father wasn’t good with finances. The magical place of jewelry and family heirlooms became a burden of transactions. Family members contributed when they could. I would take care of the minor repairs – a broken window, cleaning the stove. An uncle took care of the taxes and repaired the roof. Another uncle checked the lawn. The family who filled the house with deep laughter rarely came to visit, and my father barely kept the house from falling into disrepair.
Then, within 18 months, my father and two brothers died one after the other. The new dilemma of settling a property arose with every passing. By 2017, Mendota House became a shadow of irresolvable fees and court documents. I thought I might lose my family’s legacy. I was overwhelmed with the grief over the loss of the men in my family and even more so with the paperwork.
Over the years I’ve reached out to distant relatives, gone to probate, and – whenever I could afford it – hired lawyers to move the house into sole proprietorship. What could the generational wealth of my family be today if my ancestors had thought about what would happen to their home? How many black families could lose their families’ inheritance as they navigated Wayne County’s government bureaucracy? How did this process become more difficult amid a pandemic? I doubt we are the only family facing this dilemma.
Meanwhile, the Mendota House with its leaky roof stands empty on the west side of Detroit. My younger brother recently expressed an interest in making the house his home. My hope is that we will fulfill our elders’ dreams – that one day the Mendota House will again become a foundation of dreams and joys for our family.
Addendum: The author’s brother recently moved into the Mendota house. You are waiting for a final estate settlement.