Kriston Capps, CITY LAB
CHICAGO (The Atlantic’s City Lab) — The best time to steal someone’s home is at Christmas.
That’s when folks find their budgets stretched the tightest by the gift-giving season. People put off their bills to focus on family. The holidays are distracting: friends and loved ones come and go, there’s all that merriment. Christmas is the perfect cover for taking a family’s home away from them.
Allan Blair took Lillian Ware’s home away from her on December 27, 1971, two days after Christmas. Legally, he purchased her Evanston home. She owed $41.57 on a lien for a special tax assessment, plus some fees. Blair bought that tax lien at an auction held by Cook County, in the hopes that Ware, an elderly black woman, would fail to pay off the lien within a two-year window.
But Blair didn’t leave it to chance. As Andrew W. Kahrl recalls in a new case study on Chicago’s predatory tax buyers, Blair had Ware’s final tax repayment date extended to December 27 to boost the odds that she would forget or fail to make the payment and wind up in default.
“Blair’s treachery knew no bounds, and respected no holidays,” writes Kahrl, a professor of African-American history at the University of Virginia.
There’s a happy ending to Ware’s story, sort of. Losing her home over such a small amount of money (at Christmas no less) won Ware the sympathy of the local press. The public outcry helped the elderly lady to buy back her home—the one she had already paid for—from the man who had scrooged her. It even seemed for a minute that Blair might pay for all that he’d done.
But Ware was only one of hundreds of Chicago residents who fell victim to Blair and a predatory tax-assessment scheme that served to strip black residents of the deeds to their homes. For his part, Blair was just one of many agents using the full force of the law to plunder the wealth of thousands of black homeowners.