Kelvin Jackson is pleased that the house he bought in St. Petersburg has an extra-wide driveway, big enough to park three cars.
Shawna Ward likes that her new home in Largo is convenient to her job at the VA medical center and her daughter’s school.
And Suzette Mignott is thrilled that her new home in Riverview really is new: It’s under construction and should be finished by Christmas.
Besides their recent property transactions, Mignott, Ward and the Jacksons have something else in common: All are African-American. That makes them unusual among the ranks of Tampa Bay homebuyers.
Even though the area has recovered from the recession and housing crash, the gap between black and white home ownership is widening. In 2007, just before the market collapsed, 46.5 percent of bay area blacks area owned their homes compared to 77 percent of whites. Now, the black ownership rate has dropped to 32 percent while the rate among whites remains over 70 percent.
“Everybody took a hit when the marked crashed but since the market rebounded, African Americans are the only race that has been declining,” says Travis Brooks, president of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers, the nation’s oldest minority real estate trade group.
The reasons for the ownership gap are many: tighter lending standards, redevelopment that is driving up prices, the lingering effects of Jim Crow laws that openly discriminated against blacks. The result is that many black families never have the opportunity to own a home, the greatest source of wealth-building for most Americans and perhaps the biggest factor in the creation of stable neighborhoods.
Even African-Americans who can afford to buy sometimes find that old attitudes die hard.
In his 20 years in Tampa Bay real estate, broker Maurice Franklin has heard from many black buyers who told him agents steered them away from white areas and toward predominantly black ones.
“I know of some people who had fairly horrendous experiences in terms of African Americans in certain areas, although I believe something has changed,” he said. “The area is becoming more cosmopolitan.”
Still, a recent encounter gave him pause . Franklin and his wife, Samantha, an agent, were about to show a black client a house in Pinellas Park when a dog suddenly came at them in attack mode.
“We all had to leap into our cars and take cover,” Franklin said. “We spoke about it afterward because the dog owner never apologized and it seemed to possibly be a scare tactic. It certainly was an unwelcoming message.”
The client bought another house — in Largo.
Long after President Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves in 1863, state and local laws enforced racial segregation in the South while policies in northern states effectively keep blacks from owning homes.
The 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination based on race and color. The 1968 Fair Housing Act added teeth, making it illegal to refuse “to sell or rent a dwelling to any person because of his race, color, religion, or national origin.”
Yet blacks continued to be harmed by two insidious practices: “steering, which is guiding prospective buyers to or away from certain areas based on their race; and “redlining,” denying loans in certain areas, especially inner-city neighborhoods.
Even today, African-Americans are far more likely than whites to be rejected for conventional mortgages, according to a study this year by the Center for Investigative Reporting. It also found that banks, required by a 1977 law to lend more money in low and moderate income areas, are giving more loans to white newcomers than to long-time black residents.
Lou Brown, a veteran African-American Realtor in St. Petersburg’s Midtown area, said he still sees signs of loan discrimination. With prices soaring in some other parts of the city, houses in Midtown often draw multiple offers. Yet, he says, banks have refused to make loans in certain cases, claiming the houses didn’t appraise for as much as buyers were wiling to pay.
“I’m not suggesting you give a $150,000 mortgage on a property that’s worth $100,000 but when you see (buyers) fighting over it, then to say it’s not going to appraise out, you’ve got to wonder, are they still redlining?” Brown asks. “”Do we need some of our lending practices to change? Probably.”
Income disparities play a big role in low black home ownership rates. In the Tampa Bay area, black households earn about $31,000 a year compared to $51,100 for whites. That puts many blacks at a disadvantage, especially when trying to buy homes in neighborhoods around downtown St. Pete and Tampa that are undergoing rapid redevelopment.
“We’re losing a lot of our affordable housing options, and with interest rates rising, we don’t have a lot of products out there for low-to-moderate income families,” says Brooks of the minority real estate association. “A 1,200-square-foot home shouldn’t be priced at $200,000’’ in a modest neighborhood.
Making it even harder to buy, Brooks adds, is that banks require blacks to meet the same lending standards as whites even though black incomes and credit scores are typically lower.
“We know we are not on the same playing field,” Brooks says. “You have to give us a (loan) product in line with the community you serve.”
Franklin, the broker, teaches a course for first-time buyer at Neighborhood Home Solutions, a non-profit with branches throughout the Tampa Bay area. Many of those who take the course are African-American, including Ward, the VA hospital employee.
Instructors “tell you how you can be in a better position to buy,” she says. “So the first thing you have to do is pay bills, get your credit score up.”
The course also stresses the importance of a home’s condition — if the kitchen and bathroom aren’t upgraded, move on — and location, location, location. “That was pivotal in checking out the neighborhood crime-wise, driving through at different points of the day,” Ward said.
Until recently, Ward, 50, had to put off home ownership because of other responsibilities, including adopting her two nieces. Now, with one of the nieces expecting twins, the family needed more space than they had in their apartment. As a veteran, Ward qualified for a VA loan on a three-bedroom house in a multi-cultural area of Largo.
“Quite a few neighbors have come in and said, ‘Hello’ and ‘Welcome’ and introduced themselves so I was very pleased,” she said. “That is not normally something I’m used to.”
Suzette Mignott, who is building a home in Riverview, said she could have owned a house years ago but decided to rent after a divorce left her raising two girls alone. “Being a single parent, I wanted to put them first and put the house process on hold,” she said, “because it is a long process and it does take time and money.”
Remarried, Mignott, 42, and her four-member family are crammed into a two-bedroom St. Petersburg apartment, paying close $1,200 a month “which is ridiculous,” she said. “We had to relocate; it’s so expensive in St. Pete.”
After looking at a few new-home communities in Riverview, Mignott and her husband contracted with Lennar for a five-bedroom house in Shady Creek. The price: Under $300,000. “You do not find that in St. Petersburg area,” she said.
Kelvin Jackson and wife Tess, both in their 50s, also looked in Riverview but decided to stay in St. Petersburg’s predominantly black Midtown area near downtown. ces coordinator in the city’s sanitation department. She is an assistant manger in the Pinellas County clerk’s office.
Midtown “is a place that needed more professionals like my wife and myself,” Jackson said.
The couple found a three-bedroom, one-bath house with Franklin’s help. They liked the fact that their Realtor, too, is African American.
“He looks like me; he’s professional; he made me feel comfortable,” Jackson said.
Another recent African-American buyer, Asia Cooper, closed in August on a house in a mixed-race area just outside of St. Petersburg’s city limits. She’s doing what she can to narrow the ownership gap between blacks and white.
After she moved in this summer, Cooper threw a big house-warming party. She made it a point to tell guests how attending homeowner education classes and boosting her credit score prepared her to buy her first house at age 39.
“I said, ‘If you’re planning on living here, you should buy a house,’” said Cooper, an insurance company case manager.
Since then, three friends have asked her for more information.