Homeownership among Black Americans is at its lowest level since 1968. That’s according to a new study out of Brigham Young University and published in the journal Race and Social Problems. As of last year, just 41% of Black Americans owned homes, compared to nearly 75% of white Americans. KUER’s Caroline Ballard spoke with the study’s author, assistant professor of sociology at BYU, Jacob Rugh, about the implications of those numbers.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Caroline Ballard: In general, more young people are turning away from homeownership, whether it’s because it isn’t economically feasible or not desirable. Why is it still used as a major factor in determining wealth or success?
Jacob Rugh: For the typical American, most of their wealth or assets that they have is in the form of the value of their home. That's been the way that historically, in this country, people have been able to build wealth. One thing that's always been true is that African-Americans have always entered homeownership at a later age or later stage in their lifetime, thus putting them a little bit behind white Americans.
CB: Your research shows that a gap persists even when looking at various economic factors, like education or income. For example, Black college graduates are less likely to be homeowners than white people who didn't graduate from high school. What makes homeownership so much more difficult for Black Americans to achieve than white Americans or really any other ethnic group?
JR: The first reason is because they're less likely to have wealth passed down from their parents and grandparents who grew up in a different time. With Jim Crow and mortgage redlining, communities were not given mortgage loans because of the racial composition of their communities. And we know from research, inheritances and gifts from parents are a large source of down payments for a first home.
The second reason why African-Americans are less likely to own their home has less to do with entering homeownership than exiting homeownership. African-Americans, along with Latinos, were absolutely devastated by the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008 and have not recovered. And they are much more likely to exit homeownership through a combination of discriminatory practices and products that were targeted toward black communities.
CB: This is a big election year. In the study, you also talk about the role homeownership plays in voter turnout. You say not owning a home can directly decrease that turnout. Why do you think these two things are connected and not just correlated?
JR: First off, it's easier to vote if you stay at the same address as homeowners do, more likely than renters. Second, it's easier to vote when you have more resources and more time. And third, it's more likely that homeowners vote because voting, like any measure of civic participation, such as writing a letter to an official or participating in a protest, corresponds to more resources such as income, education and wealth in the form of home equity or your home value.
CB: The idea of monetary reparations paid to the descendants of enslaved people can be controversial. But you say it could be a vital tool to increasing Black wealth. Why is that?
JR: The wealth gap between white and Black Americans is a ratio of 10:1. That's not explained by income, savings rates or education, but morally and historically, there has been over 350 years of legal discrimination in terms of slavery and Jim Crow. So reparations represent an idea, a type of solution that would make big strides to closing the starting point or position of wealth between white and Black Americans in this country.
We know that through the Homestead Act in the 19th century, white Americans, including white immigrants, were given many acres of land for free by the government after the Civil War. Those formerly enslaved Black Americans that were freed were promised 40 acres and a mule, and we never as a country delivered on that promise.
CB: With a renewed focus on civil rights just in the past few months, how do you see economic disparity and economic rights playing into that conversation? And do you think it should have a bigger role?
JR: Yes, I believe that economic justice should play a bigger role in our discussions. When you look at the metropolitan area of Minneapolis, Minnesota, where George Floyd was murdered, that has one of the largest gaps between Black and white homeownership, as does Salt Lake City. And I believe that racial segregation, that was invested in through our now illegal practices in the past, has set a pattern for the present, where Black neighborhoods have fewer resources and as such are disproportionately the places where we see injustice. And that injustice is merely a symptom of this larger problem.
Caroline Ballard hosts All Things Considered at KUER. Follow her on Twitter @cballardnews