Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black America | By Beryl Satter | Metropolitan Books | 512 pages, $30

Every now and then, the zeitgeist smiles down upon a writer and makes the subject she’s been toiling over for a decade a hot topic at the time of publication. Such is the case with Beryl Satter’s Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black America. Through the lens of history, Satter sheds crucial light on both the current subprime-mortgage crisis and the importance of community organizing in Chicago. If anyone still questions the significance of such organizing in the inner city, she should read Family Properties for a lesson in just how hard a job it is.

The narrative—and the author’s inspiration—begins at home. “ ‘If there’s no limit to how much a man can make, and it doesn’t matter how he makes it, God help us,’ ” Satter’s grandfather, Isaac, used to say. But it was her father, Mark Satter, who put this philosophy into action by representing disenfranchised African Americans in Chicago.

The son of a Russian-Jewish immigrant, Mark Satter was born in 1916 and raised in the Lawndale section of Chicago. His father lost his small business during the Great Depression and struggled the rest of his life to support his large family. This, the author suggests, explains Mark’s desire to succeed. She traces his compassion for the underdog to a childhood injury.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Mark Satter would make a name for himself as the “Clarence Darrow of the Bankrupt”—not only by representing African Americans in court, but by speaking out publicly against racial discrimination. The causes he championed involved such economic scams as wage garnishing and the credit racket, which formed a kind of vicious circle. First, crooked merchants would sell items on credit at inflated prices and with stratospheric interest rates. When customers failed to make a payment, their wages were garnished. Under Illinois law, creditors could take more than a quarter of a person’s salary. In some cases, employers would fire employees rather than deal with the accounting headaches—which often led straight to “living on the dole.”

Mark Satter’s main cause, however, was the redlining and contract sales perpetrated by bankers and real-estate agents. While white Chicagoans had little difficulty obtaining mortgage loans in the neighborhoods of their choice, black residents were confined to ghettos and denied mortgages. Their neighborhoods were marked on maps in red ink by appraisers—hence the term “redlining.” Unable to secure federally insured mortgages, those African Americans who wished to purchase their own homes were forced to buy from unscrupulous contract sellers. The properties, sold at markups of 70 percent or more, had to be purchased in installments. If a single payment was missed, the family was evicted; the house was marked up again and resold to another unsuspecting black family. Contract sellers made a fortune, while scores of families wound up homeless.

Their immoral behavior, and the government’s support of it through the Federal Housing Administration, would spawn slums, large-scale poverty, blight, and eventually, riots. So argued Mark Satter, in and out of the courtroom.

The author follows several of her father’s legal cases in detail, bringing to life not only the poor families involved, but also the predatory contract sellers, whose greed she seeks to explain without ever rationalizing it. She also acknowledges what were often partial or pyrrhic victories. Though Mark Satter was successful in settling some of his cases, the ones he brought to trial were almost all defeated by what he saw as a corrupt, racist judicial system. Time and time again, just as reform seemed to be around the corner, Satter and his clients were dealt another crushing defeat.

Battered down by those defeats, nearly bankrupted by his charitable work, Satter was unable to keep up his Lawndale properties—which, ironically, turned into slums. He was also alienated from his fellow lawyers, and died a broken man at the age of forty-nine.

But for Beryl Satter, the story was just beginning. A month after her father’s death in 1965, a full-scale riot broke out in Lawndale. And the following month, Martin Luther King Jr. announced that his Southern Christian Leadership Conference would make Chicago the focus of its “Northern campaign.” King chose an apartment in a slum building in the city’s worst neighborhood—Lawndale—to spotlight the housing conditions there. Here were the broken-down structures with smashed windows that slumlords failed to fix, the rats patrolling the hallways, with what King described as “mounds of rubble instead of yards.”

Helene Stapinski is the author of Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History.