By PrincessSafiya Byers
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.
Regina Williams purchased her first home in 2020 and said the road to buying was a long and rough one, but sleeping in her own home was worth it.
Williams, 45, knew how important homeownership was because she’d grown up in homes owned by her grandparents.
She’d planned to take over one of the mortgages of their properties originally. But after a family fallout, she had to go the traditional route.
“I slept on my friend’s floor for about nine months while I just fixed my credit and saved money,” she said. “I knew what I wanted, so I made the sacrifices to get it.”
As a single mother of two, Williams wanted to create stability not only for herself but for her children – a dream many Black Milwaukeeans have but never reach.
A July report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum analyzed Milwaukee’s distressing rate of homeownership for Black and Hispanic Milwaukeeans in comparison to peer cities.
The report said, “Low and declining Black and Hispanic homeownership rates in Milwaukee are indicators of the city’s acute racial equity challenges. Milwaukee has the lowest homeownership rate among Black and Hispanic households combined (28.9%) among the 10 peer cities.”
Peer cities included Detroit, Kansas City, Memphis, Tucson, Albuquerque, Baltimore, Cleveland, El Paso, Fresno and Tampa.
Housing experts say to understand this crisis in full, you must know both the historical and current barriers Black Milwaukeeans face today.
Trena Bond, the executive director of Housing Resources Inc. said many people just don’t think they can own a home.
“People hear about how long and tedious the process can be and they immediately give up before they ever try,” she said. “When you don’t think something is possible, you don’t pursue it.”
According to Heather Dummer Combs, the program director of Take Root Milwaukee, the continued fallout of systemic racism practices are a huge barrier to Black Milwaukeeans becoming homeowners.
“So, you know things like banks denying communities of color at higher rates or Blacks having non-traditional credit or lower credit scores – those things are baked into the higher rates of denial for lending, for Blacks,” she said.
And another barrier that stems directly from historical racism is the Black community’s lack of generational wealth.
“It’s not as likely for Black people to have those funds readily available to buy a home or for them to borrow a few thousand from their parents for a down payment,” she said.
George Hinton, the CEO of the Social Development Commission, said because the Black community has had fewer opportunities to create generation wealth, there is less preparation for opportunities like homeownership.
“Just like with everything else, education is key,” he said. “Our community doesn’t know enough about economics to be as successful as we want to be.”
Many are like Williams and don’t know how important credit is until they try to take an important financial step like homeownership.
“Every time, I thought I had crossed my T’s and dotted my I’s, another thing came up,” said Williams. “Discrepancies from the 90’s that I had forgotten about came back up, and I had to fix them before I could move on.”
Learning about good credit
Warwees Holt, who is a financial coach with the Social Development Commission, said good credit is one of the biggest barriers she sees daily.
“Credit can be damaged so early on in life that we need to talk about it more,” she said. “Everything from student loans to unpaid phone bills matters when you’re trying to improve your credit.”
Holt said on top of all of that, people aren’t paid enough to make rent let alone save for a down payment.
“There are a bunch of little things like appraisal and inspection that you have to pay for,” she said. “And once you get in the home, you are responsible for anything that goes wrong. That can be a difficult transition for someone who has always rented.”
Hinton said because people don’t understand finances, they don’t always make wise financial decisions.
“As a community, we have a consumer culture that goes back to our lack of education,” said Hinton. “Businesses market to the Black community because they know that we will essentially waste money on temporary fulfillment rather than save for long-time goals.”
According to another report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum, Milwaukee’s Black homeownership rate has declined by over 7% since 2010.
“Wisconsin’s declining racial equity in homeownership during this period likely stemmed in part from the 2007- 2010 financial and foreclosure crisis and associated economic recession, which deflated homeownership, homebuilding, and home buying activity for several subsequent years,” the report said.
Dummer Combs said there also isn’t a good stock of affordable housing.
“There hasn’t been a housing boom since the 1960s,” she said. “The houses in the city are old, and if they haven’t been cared for properly, they’re in disrepair.”
And even those houses are hard to come by.
Black Milwaukeeans also are competing with out-of-state investors for what little stock does exist.
“Investors that at one point wouldn’t even look at Milwaukee are now buying properties in abundance,” said Wyman Winston, the principal consultant at Neighborhood Wealth and a former executive director of the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority. “Mostly on the North Side, we are seeing these primarily absentee out-of-state buyers.”
Bond of Housing Resources said because of such issues, her organization stresses homebuyer classes to everyone it comes across.
“If you can understand your barriers, you can overcome them,” she said. “And you get exposed to all the work being done to help you.”
Where to find help
A few agencies have made it their mission to help raise the rate of Black homeownership in the city.
Acts Housing’s new acquisition fund is raising money to create an expanded inventory of homes in the $90,000 to $140,000 range with monthly housing costs of ownership of $900 to $1,200. It plans to sell these homes back to community members.
The Community Development Alliance is leading an initiative to help advance racial equity by funding quality, affordable homes for Milwaukee families with a $7.5 million grant from the Wells Fargo Foundation.
Take Root Milwaukee houses a series of resources for homebuyers and owners who may be in need.
Both Acts Housing and Housing Resources Inc. offer homebuyer education for those interested in homeownership.
And there are a series of other services for other home-related issues.