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Fear of a Growing Black and Brown Renter Class (On the Power of Ownership)

As an African-American woman, there are some things I fear more than police brutality.

Like a growing Black and brown renter class.

There's  a relationship here.  Bear with me.

My office is the across the hall from a realty.  There's a Latina realtor there who I speak with occasionally in the hallway.  I can tell she works hard.  We started talking about home ownership among black and brown folks.  She's scared, too.

She's scared that the foreclosure crisis, and the intentional targeting of black and brown people for subprime mortgages by Wells Fargo, Countrywide/Bank of America and other major mortgage lenders, will permanently scare off black and brown folks from home ownership.

She's scared, as I am, that if our people stay away from home ownership, the wealth gap that currently exists between whites and black and brown people will widen even more.

She's scared, as I am, that if our people stay away from home ownership, the harder it will be for them to get into home ownership once they see the error of their ways.

And trust me, folks of any color who dismiss home ownership as "something only white people do," (and yes, I've heard that), are condemning themselves to another form of slavery:  Renting.

Investors at home and abroad are COUNTING on this black and brown growing renter class. I saw a story on the news a while back about foreign investors buying up tracts of brand new houses in Atlanta for the sole purposes of renting to folks who had lost their homes but still wanted to live in quality neighborhoods.  We all know that black and brown people disproportionately lost their homes in Atlanta during the Great Recession.  And instead of starting over and starting with what they can afford, the siren song of renting in an area where you can't afford will lead black and brown folks back down the path of rental slavery.

Investors from China are buying up Detroit homes on the cheap for rental property.  We all know that black and brown people disproportionately lost their homes in Detroit in the Great Recession.

Get the picture?

Allow me to digress again.  I recently had the pleasure of meeting an elderly, white retired U.S. Army colonel while on vacation with Black Man Not Blogging.  We started a conversation with the colonel because he was wearing a Red Tails Society hat and was surprised that we knew about the Tuskegee Airmen and the red tails on their planes.  He mentioned that he was a former Army aviator who was committed to preserving the memory and history of the Tuskegee Airman.  "We're losing them more and more each day," he lamented.

We got on the subject of home ownership.  He said he had been married for 61 years before he lost his wife, and they bought their home in a California coastal town for $126,000 a long time ago, and it is now worth way more than that.  He talked about how he inherited his brother's estate and, with that inheritance, was able to put "5 and a half" of his grandchildren through college without debt.  The half?  "One of my grandkids was stubborn about attending a private college, so we couldn't pay all of her costs."  He then mentioned that his late wife had inherited shares of stock in Caterpillar from her great-grandfather, who bought them when the company first went public.  The shares continued to split over time, and now he gets a check for $5,000 a year in dividends.  He mentioned helping one of his children buy a house in East Menlo Park at a time when no one wanted to live there.  They bought it for thousands, sold it for millions.  The appreciation in the price of his late wife's stock didn't impress him nearly as much as the appreciation in land that he and his family had experienced.  He chuckled, "Some people are paper people; some are land people.  We're land people."

Because of the power of ownership, the Colonel was not only able to put "5 and a half" of his grandchildren through college, but to live a comfortable life in his later years.

I can personally attest to the power of ownership in my own family.  My parents owned their home.  Both sets of my grandparents owned their homes.  Almost all of the aunts and uncle on both sides of the family owned their homes. 

With the house that my parents paid off, my father was able to take out equity and buy a new house when he remarried after my mother's death.  He then quitclaimed the house to my sister.  When the real estate boom happened, she sold the house at the top of the market to my brother, took the profits, and went in with my other sister on a brand new HUGE house in a gated neighborhood.  Not bad for two government workers who had been livin' in the hood.  And it all sprang from my mom and dad paying off their mortgage on their $19,000 house, $133 a month at a time, over twenty years (Remember the twenty-year fixed, anyone?)

That is the power of ownership.  But it starts small, like buying a house in a bad neighborhood to get your feet in the real estate market.

Renters, unless they are investing actively and wisely in the stock market, will have nothing to leave to their children.  No hedge against rental inflation when their incomes are fixed and limited in old age.  Nothing to help pay for their children's or grandchildren's college educations.  And it is higher education that positions people, especially people of color, to take up leadership positions in business, government and society in general.  To solve social ills.

Like police brutality.

Because if you're not in a position of power, you're not at the table where the decisions are made.  And as one of my attorney colleagues once said, "If you're not at the table, you're on the menu."

What black and brown people who swear off home ownership because of their past experiences don't understand is this:

1) A fixed rate mortgage freezes your housing costs over time.  As your salary increases, your mortgage doesn't, increasing your disposable income.  Rents always go up.  If you retire as a renter, your fixed income will always be chipped away by higher rents.

2) Your first home won't be your dream home -- it's your equity building home.  As my Latina realtor friend said, "Buy what you can afford, whether it's the best house in the worst neighborhood or the worst house in the best neighborhood.  If the neighborhood schools are bad, send your child to a charter school.  Live in the house for a while and if you don't like the neighborhood, rent it out and live elsewhere.  At least you're building equity."

3) Most people don't invest well enough so that they don't have to buy a house.  Although stocks have a higher rate of return on investment over time, real estate tends to be safer, especially if you buy and hold.  Shortly after BMNB and I bought our home in 2008, we were $100,000 under water.  Now we have a lot of equity because the market has bounced back and houses in our neighborhood aren't staying on the market very long.  As I said to BMNB when we were under water on our mortgage, "It's a good thing we like our house, because we're definitely not going anywhere."  I'm glad we couldn't.

4) Never, ever buy more than what you can afford, and don't let anyone tell you what you can afford.  During the height of the real estate boom, mortgage lenders were willing to finance BMNB and I for more than $1 million.  We knew we couldn't afford it.  We bought a foreclosure that we could safely afford.

5) If you rent, you are at the mercy of your landlord.  BMNB and I have the experience of being on both ends of the landlord/tenant stick.  When we were renting in Elk Grove, we received a 60-day notice for no reason other than that the landlord lost one of her houses and wanted to move back into the one we were renting.  On the other end, the tenant in our Colorado property is about to get a $200 per month rent increase when the lease expires in August.  Why?  Because she purposefully jacked up our kitchen countertops and DEMANDED granite countertops to replace the laminate -- WTF? -- and because the market has gone gangbusters and we can easily charge and get $200 a month more to pay off the mortgage faster.  THAT is the power of ownership.  I would be lying if I said I wasn't enjoying getting revenge on the tenant, especially since all the while I lived there BMNB wouldn't buy me granite countertops, and I was sleeping with him.

6) Get in where you fit, in however you can get in.  My sisters went in together to buy a house that neither could have afforded on their own.  My niece and nephew-in-law bought in the 'hood until they could trade up to the suburbs.  BMNB's first property, now our rental, was a townhome, because that was all he could afford.  Be creative.  If you can't afford a house, buy a condo or a townhome.  If you're handy, buy something you can fix up and put sweat equity into.  Our neighbors next door are the second generation to own their house.  When their father died, their mother bought a new house and gave the house to them, her sons.  However you get in the ownership game, just get in. Heck, start a down payment sou-sou.

7)  Home ownership takes sacrifice, but it's worth it.  When you're trying to get your credit together and save money for the down payment, you forego things.  You shouldn't buy unless you know you're going to stay in the area for at least three years.  And once you buy, you need to keep a steady job - even if you don't like it -- so you can keep your mortgage paid.  The benefit?  The tax write off for mortgage interest (which has saved us a HUGE amount of money); improvement of your credit -- the first thing that credit applications ask after your job is whether you rent or own; stability for your children, because they won't have to leave their friends or school just because the landlord says so. There are credit cards with credit limits that I couldn't dream of getting ten years ago before BMNB and I bought our house that are offered to me like crack.  My new relationship to credit card issuers is best summed up by rapper Mike Jones:  "First you didn't know me, now you all up  on me."

8)  Even if you lose your home, you can pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try again.  My parents lost a home before I was born.  They rented until the children of one of my mother's friends taunted my siblings, saying, "You ain't got no place to live."  That spurred my dad on to take on extra work to get his family back into their own home.

Wealth grows over generations, with each generation making it a little easier for the next generation -- if they are wise -- to get an education and a toehold in American society.  Wealth buys freedom. 

But you don't accumulate wealth by renting.   That is why I fear a growing black and brown renter class.

But my Latina realtor friend is undaunted. She said she continues to work to get her people into homes.  She said, "It's a lot of work, getting first-time buyers into a home.  It doesn't pay a lot.  But boy is it worth it to me."


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