For Many Black Washingtonians, Homeownership Remains Out Of Reach Owning a home is the most prevalent way Americans build wealth. But even in the affluent Washington region, homeownership is a distant dream for many black residents.
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For Many Black Washingtonians, Homeownership Remains Out Of Reach

For Many Black Washingtonians, Homeownership Remains Out Of Reach

For Many Black Washingtonians, Homeownership Remains Out Of Reach

For Many Black Washingtonians, Homeownership Remains Out Of Reach

For Hope Willis, 24, holding onto her parents' D.C. rowhouse "is about preserving community and creating long-term financial stability for my family." Suzannah Hoover/for WAMU hide caption

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Suzannah Hoover/for WAMU

Legal segregation ended in D.C. more than 70 years ago. But for many black Washingtonians, today's housing market feels as inaccessible as it was during the Truman administration.

In the District, research shows about 50% of black households own their homes, compared to more than 70% of white households — a roughly 20 percentage point gap, according to the Urban Institute. Other metropolitan areas have gaps as high as 51%, but Washington's disparity is significant for a region with such a robust black middle class.

Obstacles to homeownership undercut African Americans' ability to build wealth, perpetuating racial segregation and further entrenching poverty. The problem is so severe, the Urban Institute says it "threatens to exacerbate racial inequality for decades to come."

A lack of black homeownership is also the main reason white households in D.C. reported a net worth 81 times greater than the city's U.S.-born black households in 2014. Meanwhile, rising property taxes and intensifying pressure to sell have prompted many of the city's existing black homeowners to cash in their equity.

But Hope Willis says her family won't be one of them.

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'This Is About Financial Stability'

Willis is a 24-year-old D.C. native who recently moved into her childhood home in Petworth. Her parents bought the three-story rowhouse in 1991 and raised three kids there, later upgrading to a larger home in Maryland. But they didn't sell the D.C. house when they moved. Instead, they rented it out for 10 years, with plans to let their children live there one day.

Hope Willis in the Petworth home where she grew up. The 24-year-old D.C. native says her parents' home is a lifeline in an increasingly expensive city. Suzannah Hoover/for WAMU hide caption

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Suzannah Hoover/for WAMU

The house is now a lifeline for Willis, who recently took over her parents' mortgage. She says she wouldn't be able to afford to live in the District otherwise.

"D.C. is experiencing a more accelerated form of gentrification than we've ever seen before," she says. Renting an apartment in a Petworth high-rise — where rents start around $1,800 — would be "delusional."

Instead, Willis is now a landlord with three tenants, all of them native Washingtonians. Their rent helps her cover her parents' $2,000-plus monthly mortgage payments. She sleeps in a small converted office off the living room and handles most home maintenance herself.

Willis has pulled all-nighters repainting rooms and repairing the wood floors in the aging house. She accidentally impaled her hand on a nail while fixing baseboards. She discovered a horrifying cockroach infestation that required fumigation and days of sealing the cracks and holes that had let them in.

"That was the moment that I said to myself, 'I have no idea what I'm doing,'" Willis says with a laugh.

But none of the challenges have shaken her conviction that the home must stay in her family. "This is about preserving community and creating long-term financial stability," she says.

It's the kind of stability that remains out of reach for many black Washingtonians.

The Roots Of Inequality

Black residents in the District faced an extremely narrow path toward homeownership until the middle of last century. The Federal Housing Administration insured mortgages almost exclusively for white people between 1934 and 1962, including in the nation's capital. The federal government advised lenders to avoid issuing mortgages to black buyers, categorizing segregated black neighborhoods as high risk. Courts upheld racially restrictive covenants that blocked property sales to black residents in many District neighborhoods until a 1948 Supreme Court decision banned the practice.

Vestiges of legal segregation can still be found on deeds throughout the District. In 1936, the deed on Hope Willis' childhood home specified that the lot "shall never be rented, leased, sold, transferred or conveyed unto or in trust for any negro or colored person of person of negro blood or extraction."

For decades, black families were banned from buying homes in Petworth, shown here circa the late 1920s. Courtesy of/Theodor Horydczak Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division hide caption

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Courtesy of/Theodor Horydczak Collection, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Such covenants were widespread in neighborhoods that later became majority African American.

That includes the Northeast D.C. neighborhood of Stronghold, where D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5) lives in a house his grandparents purchased in 1952. Six years before his grandparents moved in, two dozen of their white neighbors signed an agreement to not sell or lease to black residents for 21 years.

The home has since become a crucial asset for McDuffie's family.

"Our home is our primary source of wealth," the Council member says. "When you look at some of the disparities that exist across the country and in D.C. with respect to wealth, you see why homeownership is so important."

Today, records show that many banks continue to deny home loans to qualified applicants of color at higher rates than white applicants. Racial income inequality, while fairly low in the D.C. area compared to the rest of the country, means people of color are disproportionately affected by rising home prices.

African Americans also were uniquely harmed by the subprime mortgage crisis, losing more than half their wealth nationally. Between 2004 and 2006, four out of five high-interest loans in the Washington area went to people of color. Consequently, nonwhite Washingtonians — most of them black — lost their homes at higher rates than whites. Black homeownership rates have started to rebound, though many African American borrowers are still paying mortgages that far exceed their homes' worth.

Intensifying the problem is the fact that black-owned homes gain value at a slower pace than white-owned homes, says Alanna McCargo, vice president for housing finance policy at the Urban Institute.

"There's a big difference in terms of [home value] appreciation that we're seeing in white neighborhoods versus black neighborhoods in the region," McCargo says, raising questions about the extent to which segregationist ideas about a neighborhood's value continue to inform appraisals.

How To Close The Racial Gap

Some local governments are implementing partial solutions to address the issue.

The District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia all offer financial assistance to first-time homebuyers with moderate or low incomes.

D.C.'s Home Purchase Assistance Program, which provides zero-interest down payment loans and closing cost assistance, distributed 343 loans in the 2019 fiscal year. Of those, 85% went to black applicants, according to Sheila Miller, deputy director for programs at D.C.'s Department of Housing and Community Development, which administers the program.

The District and Montgomery County also require most new residential development to include a certain percentage of affordable units, some of which can be purchased.

But McCargo with the Urban Institute says leaders must attack the problem on multiple fronts. To repair the harm, the think tank has proposed a "five-point framework" to advise government officials on the local, state and federal level.

For local governments, the think tank stresses offering more financial assistance to homebuyers; encouraging construction of cheaper housing types, like condominiums and duplexes; and rethinking the way land is used, particularly in single-family neighborhoods where high prices have locked out anyone but the most affluent buyers.

"You do have to take a specific look at what's happening locally," McCargo says. "You have to look at your land use ... and remove barriers that exist within that."

In the meantime, existing black homeowners in the District are under pressure. Many struggle to afford property taxes that have increased as home values have risen. (Though the District has a program for that, too.) Others are understandably eager to take advantage of rising values by selling.

"I receive phone calls every day from investors who want to purchase my home," says Sheila Miller with DHCD. "Every time I receive those phone calls, I think about my neighbors who are elderly or maybe raising families that might feel like, 'Well, maybe I should take advantage.'"

"I didn't think when I was a little kid that I would ever leave this place," says Hope Willis. Suzannah Hoover/for WAMU hide caption

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Suzannah Hoover/for WAMU

Hope Willis is relieved her parents didn't make that choice.

After her family moved to Maryland, Willis found every opportunity to return to the city. She lived with family members nearby, later graduating from high school in the District. Now a student at the University of Maryland, she hasn't assumed full ownership of the house yet. But that's her long-term goal.

"It's very surreal for me to be back here," Willis says, sitting at her new dining table. "I didn't think when I was a little kid that I would ever leave this place, first of all. And I definitely didn't think that these would be the conditions and terms of me coming back."

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