Summit Conversations: Bold policy needed to close the homeownership gap
By Nia Laing, AmeriCorps VISTA at ANDP
On August 28, 2019, the Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership joined with Urban Institute, National Association of Real Estate Brokers and NeighborWorks America for an important discussion – “Closing the Homeownership Gap: In Metro Atlanta and Beyond”.
“We are at an all-time low,” Terri Lee, Atlanta’s Chief Housing Officer says about the city’s dwindling level of black homeownership. African-American households are drastically slipping behind in wealth and economic mobility. The homeownership gap between black and white families is at 30% and has continued to grow over the past five decades, with white households holding ten times the wealth of black households. One of the most striking examples of this crisis is the metro Atlanta area, where nearly 90% of the city’s impoverished residents are now living in the suburbs. As luxury developments and rents increase, it is mostly African American families that are pushed into the suburbs, where they lack access to public transit, jobs, and safety networks.
As Lisa Rice of National Fair Housing Alliance points out, the current housing issue is a legacy of our nation’s longstanding discriminatory housing policies. “Our housing policies were very racialized… with a deliberate focus on denying opportunity for both people of color and women,” she says. Andre Perry (Brookings Institute) expands on this point. “There’s nothing wrong with black people that ending racism can’t solve… that this narrative that we’re somehow broken is the reason why we’re not buying homes at the rate that we want to, and as we should, is ridiculous,” he says. Perry’s research shows that homes in predominantly black neighborhoods are valued at 23% less than those in areas with few black residents, resulting in a $156 billion loss of wealth in black communities. In Atlanta, homes in black neighborhoods are devalued by 30%. “Racism is literally robbing people of the ability to lift themselves up.”
The Research: Black Homeownership and Wealth Creation
Homeownership is a significant driver of wealth creation for families of color. “93% of ANDP’s homebuyers still remain in their homes, with an average wealth of $88,797 for those who remained for five or more years,” says Mandy Eidson, Loan Fund Manager at ANDP. This is important considering that 37% of black households have zero or negative net wealth, compared to 15.5% for white households (Institute for Policy Studies, 2019). ANDP also found that every dollar spent on renovations in Douglas and DeKalb County, GA helped raised the value of surrounding homes by $16. Georgia State’s Dan Immergluck expands on this point, adding that besides declining values, other long-term effects of the mortgage crisis on black communities include foreclosures, damaged credit, vacancies, lost wealth, underwater homes, and lost savings due to rent increases.
Although the research clearly points towards a need for increased resources for black homeownership, federal housing policy is not responding. “Not one has put on the table a comprehensive proposal for anything about homeownership,” says James H. Carr (Wayne State University) about the 2020 presidential candidates. What’s also pressing is the decline in homeownership among millennials compared to their baby boomer parents, which makes improving housing policy even more urgent. Jung Choi at Urban Institute found that black millennials are at the very bottom, with a homeownership rate of 15.3% compared to 47.2% for white millennials. She adds, “more than one-third of black millennials stay with their parents, and this number has increased significantly since the financial crisis.”
Barriers Impacting Housing Demand
“The desire to become homeowners is very, very high,” says Nancy Flake Johnson, President of Urban League – Greater Atlanta. Although the Urban League’s homeowner workshops are packed out, the lack of homeownership among African Americans is a multi-faceted issue. It has ties to income equality, job availability, and resource accessibility. “The minimum wage in this region is $5.15 an hour… a livable wage is $27 an hour,” she states. “It’s the quality and caliber of the jobs and what they’re earning.” Urban League tackles the homeownership holistically by not only providing HUD-certified counseling, but workforce development and entrepreneurship training. “The key is scale. We need our philanthropic partners, our banks… we only have two HUD-certified housing counselors on our team. We could do a lot more if we have six, but we can’t afford [more staff],” Flake adds.
Wells Fargo understands this need and responded with an initiative to lend more money to black homebuyers from 2017 to 2027. “In 2017, we launched a $60 billion initiative to increase black homeownership, to create 2,500,000 homeowners,” says Hugh Rowden, Head of Engagement Initiatives and Community Outreach at Wells Fargo.
There’s also a solution that hits closer to home, but is often left out of the housing conversation: the black church. “I’ve been emphasizing the importance of homeownership,” says Bishop Reginald Jackson, Sixth Episcopal District of the A.M.E. Church. Bishop Jackson once asked members of a congregation to raise their hands if they were homeowners and was shocked to see that only a small handful were. He then committed to increasing homeownership in the church through an initiative he calls “No D’s” – no debts, no deficits, no delinquencies. NAREB Vice President Jeffrey Hicks also suggests that the church is a crucial avenue to reach black people. “16 million black people attend church weekly. Even a 40% rate of homeownership among that population would create 2.5 million homeowners,” he says.
Addressing the Tight Housing Supply
Becoming a homeowner is not only a matter of affordability. The availability of homes also plays a role. “Levels of single-family construction are like what we last saw in the 90s,” says Michael Neal of the Urban Institute. Despite population growth, the rate of single-family home construction has been stagnant due to the high cost of building materials, labor shortage, inventory gridlock, and negative media reports creating uneasiness for buyers, among other factors.
There’s also the negative perception of affordable housing. “One of the things that we have found with Habitat is that [people think] affordable housing has to be associated with poverty and that it has to look the same… and that’s not true,” says Lisa Gordon, President of Atlanta Habitat for Humanity. Habitat’s current projects include homes of different models, green spaces, and outdoor amenities. In addition, who owns the land and what they’re doing with it contributes to the problem. Much of the land in high-trending cities like Atlanta is held by investors and developers who aren’t doing affordable housing. “We need to secure the land,” Gordon adds.
How do we address the construction labor shortage? “There’s a real opportunity and a real need to get young people into the system,” says Neal. The average construction worker is a 42-year-old white male. Despite the high demand for it, 70% of young people (across race and gender) don’t want to go into construction because of the perceived potential to earn more in other fields. Construction could also be a source of gainful employment (a factor related to homeownership rates) for young people of color. “I think we need to be investing in businesses that are run by people of color, and attach them to universities for apprenticeships where people can learn on the job… and we need to finance these businesses and get them access to capital,” suggests Community Housing Capital’s CEO, Cindy Holler.
Banks should also step up to address the construction labor shortage. “Community banks really are the lifeline of the construction industry. It’s very much a small bank to small builder relationship,” adds Neal. Minority-owned banks could help expand financing, especially because they have insider knowledge about racially diverse communities. Another remedy is factory production, to increase productivity and lower labor costs.
Policy Response Needed to Increase Black Homeownership
Policy can start with addressing neighborhood blight and affordable renting. “Rental housing is pitted against homeownership,” says Kristin Siglin, VP for Policy and Partnerships at the National Community Stabilization Trust. Siglin suggests an increase in New Markets Tax Credits over the short term with better lending policies over the long term.
“Millennials very much want to own homes,” says Alanna McCargo, VP of Housing Finance Policy at Urban Institute, “but it was a traumatic experience for millennials who watched their parents go through the foreclosure crisis. We need to meet this generation where they are.” She suggests that credit scoring systems need to be updated and the FHA loan process needs to be modernized, since FHA is perceived as a difficult process and stigmatizes those who want to use it.
Policy leaders must also include financial literacy and homeownership in their platform. “When my grandparents lost their home, my whole family sort of cracked up because we didn’t have a place to meet… what it showed me was that homeownership is the epitome of keeping a community together,” says Larry Johnson, Commissioner of DeKalb County, Georgia. Johnson, who racked up 14 credit cards in college, believes financial literacy should start as young as elementary school. “I go to elementary schools to talk about credit scores,” he says.
Perhaps the most important piece of this whole conversation is to reconsider what we value – what we want for ourselves, our families, and our communities. As Commissioner Johnson states: “We first have to approach it from a personal standpoint. What is a home?”
The Homeownership Summit’s presenting sponsor was Wells Fargo. Additional sponsorship support provided by SunTrust, NeighborWorks America, and US Bank.
Featured Image: Left to right – Jeffrey Hicks, Empire Board of Realtists; Marietta Rodriguez, NeighborWorks America, Alanna McCargo, Urban Institute; John O’Callaghan, Atlanta Neighborhood Development Partnership; and Donnell Williams, National Association of Real Estate Brokers pause after the summit on black homeownership at The Carter Center.