Homeownership has long been part of the American dream, a sure-fire way to secure stability and generational wealth at once. While this goal has been relatively easy to achieve for white Americans, the same could not be said for marginalized communities — especially Black Americans. While they may be able to secure homeownership eventually, predatory and racist policies tucked into contracts and intertwined with the law itself leaves Black Americans most vulnerable.
In the documentary “Locked Out,” which played at the 2023 SF DocFest, viewers are invited to explore the detrimental effects of such policies as played out in Detroit, Michigan, one of the most segregated cities in the United States. A group of Black women fight to make homeownership an attainable reality for all despite the many predatory contractors and companies that pervade the housing industry.
The patterns are established quickly in “Locked Out.” Inexperienced homeowners are lured in with housing deals that seem sympathetic to their financial hardships, such as land contracts. Yet, tucked within the fine print are clauses and terms that change the housing deal from a successful road to acquisition into a financial money pit. Locked in these contracts, homeowners have no choice but to do their best to finance constant home repairs while keeping up with their house payments. But, throughout the documentary, it becomes increasingly clear that eviction and foreclosure are the road most of these homeowners are headed toward from the beginning.
The conditions they end up living in as a result are nothing short of horrifying. There are bathrooms without running water, leaving a young mother to boil water on the stove. Dry rot infests the house, leaving families to wonder if the next time they go to take a bath will be the time the floor finally caves in underneath them. Yet, the homeowners are stuck between a rock and a hard place with their demands for equitable treatment, as was initially promised, being ignored by the companies that sold them the house as well as Detroit’s leadership itself.
While some have limited success in petitioning for better conditions, more often than not, the entities they signed contracts with are able to dodge responsibility by arguing that their demands are not in line with the clauses outlined in the contracts they signed, and that they then have no obligation to assist them in making repairs. Apathy and greed lie at every stage of the process, and many of the first-time homeowners had no chance to recognize their contracts’ duplicity.
While “Locked Out” goes back and forth between multiple homeowners, the overarching narrative remains the same — that segregation and racism remain at large in America, and homeownership especially continues to be shaped by inherently racist policies. So, viewers join the various individuals and families ending up journeying from place to place as they seek stability in an environment that wishes them nothing but instability.
The camera glides over deteriorating roofs and porches beginning to cave in, even as they try to make the best of a hard situation, decorating their homes and working with whatever remains functional. It becomes increasingly obvious how inhumane these contracts are. Grassroots activists, like those in the documentary, fight for not only better contracts that make homeownership a reasonable goal, but for overall better and more humane conditions than what these homeowners currently get.
“Locked Out” is a sobering examination of the state of homeownership for Black Americans — one that rings true even outside of Detroit. As they seek stability and something to pass on to their kids, it becomes clear in the documentary that racism and corporate greed pervades and acts as an active, vicious blockade. While it may not be an easy watch, it’s a film that demands attention and gives a voice to homeowners who were, and still often are, victims of injustices in the housing industry.