Racial divide in Northland home ownership persists
Anitra Saddler spent much of her Minneapolis childhood in and out of homelessness.
The idea of one day owning a house seemed out of reach.
But with help from Community Action Duluth, Saddler, a black social worker, purchased a home in Superior in November 2015.
"It not only changed my outlook but it changed my family's outlook on everything — that nothing is too out there, that we deserve to be members of society as well," she said.
Unfortunately, Saddler's story of becoming a homeowner remains the exception rather than the norm in the Northland.
People of color living in Duluth are about twice as likely as white residents to be renters. Only 27 percent of households identifying themselves as of color owned their homes in 2016, compared with 63 percent of white households, according to Duluth's most recent Housing Indicators Report.
Despite having a strong credit score, a solid work history and a college education, Saddler said she visited six banks before finally obtaining a mortgage.
Renee Van Nett, an enrolled member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, works as an employment liaison for Community Action Duluth and became a first-time homeowner last August, moving into a Duluth Heights home with two nieces, ages 11 and 12, who are under her care.
Van Nett, who also serves as a Duluth City councilor, said home ownership has given her family a newfound sense of security.
But Van Nett said her path wasn't easy — there were substantial obstacles to overcome.
"I was scared to look at my credit and scared to deal with my school loans, but I had to. I also had to get my taxes in order, because they weren't in order, and that's scary, too," she said.
With coaching, however, Van Nett said she worked step by step to repair her credit and get her finances in order so she could qualify for a home loan.
"They kind of took things apart, little by little and made it not so giant. So One Roof, (Lutheran Social Services) and Community Action together helped me to do it," she said.
Van Nett considers herself living proof that home ownership is an attainable goal for people of color.
"I think other people can do it if I did it," Van Nett said. "What it takes is a willingness to do the work. You've got to be willing to work hard, even when you feel overwhelmed and exhausted. But it can be done."
A hand up
Both Saddler and Van Nett saved up for a downpayment and closing costs with the help of a poverty-fighting program that matched every dollar they saved with another $3.
Jeff Corey, executive director of One Roof Community Housing, said such proactive programs are often needed to make home ownership possible.
"Increasingly it seems like home ownership is getting farther out of reach for low-income folks. And folks of color in our community are, on average, not as wealthy as white folks are. They don't earn as much, and so many folks of color are starting at a disadvantage in that regard," he said.
Corey noted that escalating housing costs and stagnating wages for many American workers have proven a challenging combination.
"We're doing things at One Roof with homebuyer education and counseling that can really help folks kind of get their ducks in a row and get ready to buy. And we're having success with that. But if housing wasn't so darn expensive or if incomes were higher, we'd have a lot more success," he said.
Karen St. George, manager of Community Action Duluth's financial education and employment coaching programs, doesn't see things improving.
"Unfortunately, the disparity is only worsened with the stagnant wages in Duluth. Home ownership costs are going up at the same time as wages are staying stagnant," she said.
St. George said Community Action works with many of its clients to help identify ways to train up and land higher-paying jobs as a path toward home ownership.
Despite concerted efforts to address housing inequities, many of the community's problems remain deep-rooted.
Corey noted the Fair Housing Act was signed about 50 years ago. He said that act "did away with things that were institutionalized in the housing finance industry of our country that excluded people of color, both by what neighborhoods mortgages could happen in and by what color people needed to be."
The 2016 Duluth Housing Indicators Report directly attributes much of the city's continued wealth gap and the segregation of people of color into the lower-income neighborhoods to "government policies, one of which is called redlining."
The report says: "Redlining systematically prevented black and other minority families from getting home loans. From 1934 to 1962, 98 percent of the $120 billion worth of home loans subsidized by the government were given to white families, effectively locking nonwhite families out of home ownership."
Adam Fulton, manager of Duluth's Community Planning Division, said the ongoing racial gap in rates of home ownership "has its roots in mostly federal policies that go back a long time."
Corey said the lasting impact of systemic racism in the nation's housing markets must be acknowledged.
"I think we have an obligation now to still talk about that. And I think we have an obligation to talk about what ought we do to make reparations for that, as a society. What's our responsibility to right those wrongs, because two or three generations later, the impacts are still felt," he said.
Julie Gugin, executive director of the Minnesota Homeownership Center, said the state's record of striving for racial parity is poor.
"As we look at the national picture over the last several years, as long as we've been looking at this issue, Minnesota continually ranks near the bottom of states in this country as it relates to home ownership achievement for households of color," she said.
The gap in rates of home ownership between white and nonwhite households in Minnesota is 35 percent. Only four other states have a greater racial gulf, and Gugin said the state hasn't managed to close that rift much.
"One of the reasons is we know that households of color were inordinately targeted during the foreclosure crisis, and during those deep recession years we were even closer to the bottom," she said.
But Gugin said the Minnesota Homeownership Center and its partners, including One Roof and Community Action Duluth continue to work to dispel some of the myths that discourage people from aspiring to own a home.
"Folks are really misinformed about what it takes from a credit standpoint to achieve home ownership, how much cash is necessary in order to make home ownership a reality and other myths, as well, one of which is that you've got to do this alone, that there's no support. We know through Community Action Duluth and One Roof Housing that there's a lot of support," she said.
"We really want to be there to make sure that people are thinking about home ownership in a way that's right for their family and in a way that they can sustain it for generations to come," Gugin said.
St. George described the benefits of home ownership as multi-fold.
"I think it stabilizes not only your finances, but it also gives you peace of mind that your kids are going to be able to stick in the same school district.," she said.
"One of the things that home ownership does is it stabilizes your expenses in ways that renting does not," St. George said. "The reality is that if you can own a home, it's oftentimes less expensive than renting in Duluth."