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NeighborWorks America01/04/2019

The data are stark and clear: Despite an improving economy, the gap between black and white homeownership continues to be a wide one. Nationally, the black homeownership rate is 41 percent — nearly unchanged from 50 years ago, when the federal Fair Housing Act banned racial discrimination in our sector. That compares to the 71 percent of white adults who own a home. The gap is even wider now than it was in 1900, documents a study by Zillow.

A black woman stands next to a street light in front of her home

"Homeownership among blacks has declined and is declining," agrees Karen Hoskins, NeighborWorks America's vice president of national homeownership. "Why? There's a number of factors. One is that many people of color saw their parents, family members or friends lost their homes to foreclosure during the recent crisis and now they are a little leery. The research also indicates that millennials, especially those of color, are carrying tremendous debt as a result of student loans. The more debt you have, the less you can afford. Third, there may be some cultural issues at work. But we believe homeownership is still the greatest wealth builder available. So education and action is needed." 

One of the actions Hoskins' team is taking to build awareness of the challenge among NeighborWorks network members and prepare them to assist their customers and clients is the creation of opportunities to learn from peers who are successfully tackling the issue. One of those network members, the Portland (Oregon) Housing Center, recently was featured at the NeighborWorks Training Institute in Pittsburgh for the educational program it has developed specifically for African-Americans.

"After the Great Recession, the previous presidential administration implemented two tax credits to help rebuild homeownership, and we found that every group came back into the market—except African-Americans," comments Peg Malloy, executive director. 

The center commissioned a study and data visualization tools to better understand the scale of the problem faced by the region, and to help share the data with civic leaders and policy makers. It showed that if current trends continue, it is likely homeownership will be largely out of reach for many by 2020. 

"This leaves many black and Latinx families in Portland with no opportunity to become homeowners close to jobs, schools, public parks, and the social and financial center of the city," notes We Call This Home, a website set up by the nonprofit.

The center also organized several focus groups. "In one of the groups, a woman brought up the need for a safe place to talk about money among people who look, talk and face the same challenges as each other," notes Malloy. "She turned out to be like a lot of others and it was very eye-opening; just because we all talk English doesn't mean we treat money the same way."

In response, the housing center recruited Rhea Combs, Ph.D., who later moved on to become the curator of film and photography at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African-American History and Culture, to help develop and teach a customized curriculum. 

"Rhea put it all into a historical context, starting with the experience of being 'owned' as slaves. But now, black people have the opportunity to be owners themselves," explains Malloy about the "Getting Your House in Order" course. "That's a pretty powerful statement about what ownership means and the implications for the black community. She also talks about the growing inequality and the importance of intergenerational wealth transfer. There's a lot more depth than just how to do a budget."

Malloy recalls an occasion when she spoke at a university class and one of the students was asked if her family had bought a house. A young black woman said no, and that the professor asked why. "She said, 'Because somebody will just take it away.'"

Charlene Addy McGee, a program manager for the Multnomah County Health Department (in Portland, Oregon), was one of Combs' "students." 

Charlene McGee, a black woman, stands in front of her new home

"The program actually gave me the nudge and the confidence to get over the hump and buy my first home. I closed on it Aug. 14, 2017, and got married the following Sept. 2," she says. "I didn't think I could do it, but with the program and their support, here I am."

When asked what made the Portland Housing Center's program unique, McGee mentioned the concept of "social cohesion." 

"It's being in a class with people who look like me, have similar lived experiences, and have similar fears related to homeownership and money management," she explains. "The curriculum is tailored to how our community perceives money and the importance of getting over fear so we can build intergenerational wealth."

McGee adds that she particularly appreciated when the program brought in earlier "graduates" who shared their own homeownership "journeys." "They made you think, "Okay, I can do this, I can get over my fear, we can make this happen. And there is a Facebook group where we can exchange articles and other resources."

In addition to the Facebook group, an African-American counselor is available for ongoing support. "Otherwise, after the class, people tend to 'well, what do I do next?' This all leads to finally being able to buy a house, depending on affordability of course," adds Malloy.

Even McGee's 10-year-old son soaked up the learning she brought home, applying it to what he saw and heard. 

"He watches this show on TV and he said one day, 'Mommy, now that we own a house, you can pull out the equity so that when I go to college I can be a landlord.' I was like, 'Oh my God, where did you get that from?' He had me watch the show, which featured African-American couples who were buying homes and literally doing the same thing we were. And now he is seeing himself as a landlord one day! Now he sees himself in the stories he's hearing." 

Purchasing a home still wasn't easy, of course. Saving for the down payment was the hardest part, says McGee. However, she loved the mortgage lender to which the Portland Housing Center referred her. "The lenders they have, they are just amazing. They helped me be calm and confident. My girlfriends were so surprised: 'You like your mortgage broker?' they said, not believing it. And I said, 'Yeah!'"

McGee felt so empowered that she proposed that her employer offer the program to its clients. Planning is underway now for a start date of January or February.

Interested in the "Getting Your House in Order" curriculum? The Portland Housing Center is considering making it available along with a teacher's manual. Contact the center at


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