In a sea of conflicting messages about homeownership, especially in the Black community, the decision to purchase a home can be tough. On the one hand, we’ve been bombarded with messages telling us that owning a home is a part of the American dream and a relatively safe way to build wealth. Yet for the past three years, news headlines have described hundreds of thousands of foreclosures. Because we see the devastating effects that the boom and bust cycle of recent years has had on our community, we know that in many cases, the people behind the numbers are people of color.
Our more difficult experience with property ownership is not new. African Americans and Latinos have historically had a lower rate of property ownership than other ethnic groups. The data that I was able to find indicates that from the ‘70s through the ‘90s, only slightly more than 40% to 45% of African Americans owned homes compared to nearly 70% of White Americans. Currently, African American and Latino homeownership rates have crept up to about 46% and 48% while nearly 75% of White Americans now own their homes. According to Loren Schweninger’s book “Black Property Owners in the South, 1790-1915,” published in 1997, to varying degrees, this disparity has always existed.
Those of us who have achieved property ownership have done so despite great challenges. Under the United States’ system of institutionalized discrimination against African Americans and other groups that existed until the mid-1960s, it was perfectly legal to deny African Americans equal access to many of the basic tools for wealth creation, such as education and jobs, that would have allowed them to earn and save enough money to purchase property. Through the 1960s and beyond, even when African Americans (and often other groups of color) had the resources to purchase property, they faced many barriers. Redlining, discrimination from sellers and neighborhood associations, and policies instituted by cities, the Federal government and other government entities kept many of us from becoming home owners.
African Americans who have been able to acquire property have always faced a higher risk of losing it. A notable example of this occurred when tens of thousands of African Americans who had been given land by the government during the Civil War were, after the war ended, forced by government order to return the property to the original plantation owners. In the years since slavery was abolished, African American landowners have lost their land in a variety of ways. Some had it taken from them by theft or forced partition sale. Many African American farmers lost their land due to discriminatory lending practices by the USDA. Here in the Bay, thousands of African Americans, including homeowners, were forced out of their homes in San Francisco’s Fillmore District in the 1960s and 1970s. And in the few years since the foreclosure crisis began, the rate homeownership has declined for African Americans more that it has for any other group.
Since we have heard these stories of loss from our parents and grandparents and we are seeing it continue in our communities, it wouldn’t be shocking if many of us stopped trying to purchase homes. With the down payment and closing costs of the average starter home in Alameda county ranging from about $15,000 to $30,000, why would someone making an average salary commit to saving and then spending so much money on something they might lose? Why not just continue to rent?
The answer is simple: African Americans deserve the same opportunity as any other group to sustainably own real estate. Although not all of us will seek to become property owners, when we do, it should generally be beneficial and should not be more risky or financially harmful for us than it is for people of other races. Just as we demand equal opportunities to become doctors or members of our friendly neighborhood country clubs, we should expect and seek an equal opportunity to achieve sustainable property ownership. Just as we continue to protest injustice, donate to causes, and embark on journeys where we are the first or one of very few African Americans to do something, we should continue to value and seek sustainable property ownership in our community.
When done sustainably, property ownership increases wealth and offers a means to pass that wealth on to future generations. Even during a down market, I’ve helped people sell homes for 15 to 20 times the price that their parents or grandparents paid years ago to buy those homes. Also, property owners have more control over how their property can be used and don’t have to worry about rent increases or being evicted by a landlord who decides to move in or do a massive rehabilitation project. Furthermore, today’s home buyers are getting loans that are much more sensible so they are much less likely to lose their homes because of a crazy increase in their mortgage payment.
Sustainable property ownership is one of the keys to full participation in our society and it offers a means of acquiring a great deal of wealth. We must educate ourselves on how to own property sustainably and continue to fight the unique challenges regarding property ownership that continue to plague our community.