AfrAm farmers

History, Housing Discrimination, and Homeownership: A Step Towards Racial Equity

Image: An African-American farming family in the 19th or early 20th cent. Starting around this time, about 14 million acres of land was stolen from African-Americans.

Centuries of theft. Millions of acres stolen. And a denial of opportunity at every turn. The story of black homeownership in America is a mirror image of the American dream. It’s the reason the average black family in this country has just 1/16th the wealth of the average white family.

That’s why MANNA is especially intent on extending affordable homeownership to black families, and why MANNA opposes long-term affordability restrictions. Because without real opportunities for black families to build wealth, our country will never achieve racial equity.

What was stolen

The numbers are staggering. Between 1910 and 2001, black families lost about 14 million acres of farmland—a land mass roughly the size of West Virginia. That’s about 95 percent of what they once owned. This land was taken in a variety of ways—from lynchings to fraudulent tax charges, the theft ran the gamut. It continues today through a practice called “partition sales,” something used disproportionately by unscrupulous developers to separate black families from their land.

And that’s only the physical theft. Perhaps even worse is the theft of opportunity.

The American 30-year mortgage was born in the 1930s, and with it the dream of homeownership as a pathway to a middle-class life and economic stability—for white people, that is. Mortgages were essentially unavailable to black people until the Fair Housing Act of 1968.

As anyone who’s ever been introduced to the concept of compounding interest will tell you, a forty-year head start will make a difference. Since the wealth of homeownership is passed down along family lines, white families got wealthier with each successive generation, as at the same time black families were losing millions of acres of land.

And although the Fair Housing Act opened significant new opportunities for black families, opportunity theft remained rampant. Practices like block busting, where speculators intentionally drove up and then crashed the value of a neighborhood that was becoming majority black, and modern day redlining, where banks steer families of color away from houses they could afford in majority white neighborhoods, continued and continue to exacerbate the disparity.

With the crash of the housing market in the late 2000s, another truth came to light: black families, regardless of income, were more likely to be given predatory subprime loans than white families. Translation: you were better off buying a house as a poor white family than a wealthier black family.

Where we go from here

We’ve only scratched the surface of discrimination in homeownership—and homeownership is only one kind of asset, and assets are only part of the story on wealth building, and wealth building only works if…

You get the picture. Interest isn’t the only thing compounding in this story.

What this all adds up to is a situation in which the average American white family has 16 times the wealth of the average black family. In the DC area, it’s an incomprehensible 81 times the wealth. For every $1,000 of worth a black family has, a white family has $81,000.

But it’s not a hopeless scene. A report last year from Demos found that even without any other changes, equalizing racial homeownership rates would shrink the racial wealth gap by almost a third.

Wealth gap and homeownership rates

And that’s where MANNA sees its mission. Affordable homeownership opportunities are, for black families, an essential opportunity for moving towards racial equity.

That’s why MANNA opposes long-term affordability restrictions that require homeowners to sell to others in their income category for decades. These restrictions keep low-income families from growing their investment, often keeping them from even being able to sell to their own family members and stopping the generational transfer of wealth. Black families have to be afforded the same opportunities as white families, or the wealth gap will continue to grow.

The chance to build back some of the wealth that was stolen from and in other cases never available to people of color is not just a moral but a practical imperative for our country. To achieve a functioning society, a country that works at its full potential, we need to close the racial wealth gap.

We need affordable homeownership.

We need racial equity.

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