Black women suffer the legacy of racism in homeownership and make expensive repairs

Yolanda, 61, owns a home in the predominantly black 7th Ward neighborhood of New Orleans.

To fix her leaky roof in 2020, she had to borrow money.

“It’s one of those credit card loans,” she said. “Like 30% interest and all that, you know. I was kind of backed against the wall, so I went ahead and took out the loan, a high-interest loan.

As a sociologist who has spent the past 10 years studying housing conditions in the United States, I led a research team that conducted interviews with homeowners struggling with basic maintenance issues such as rotting wood coverings and floors, mold, crumbling bricks, outdated plumbing and leaks. ceilings. Our first paper from this project is currently undergoing peer review.

Like Yolanda, our interviewees – whom we gave pseudonyms to protect their privacy – were almost all black women over 60 who lived in old buildings in neighborhoods that suffered the brunt of discrimination – such as redlining and inequitable land use decisions – and divestment.

Once a bustling neighborhood of black businesses and homes, the 7th Ward has become an area of ​​deep poverty since the I-10 freeway was built in the 1960s directly through its heart.

Yolanda had already been living there for a decade before the highway was built.

Though brightly painted, Yolanda’s house is only separated from I-10 by an empty lot, and the constant noise and higher pollution levels make it hard to imagine Yolanda could sell his house for a profit or use its diminishing value as equity. .

Did Yolanda take out a high interest loan for nothing?

Was she throwing good money after bad?

These are not easy questions to answer.

Like other black women homeowners we interviewed, Yolanda had to choose between debt and disrepair.

As she explained, she was “leaning against a wall.”

The racist and sexist history of dilapidation

According to an analysis of 2022 federal census data by Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies, nearly a third of homeowners earning less than US$32,000 — or about 4.8 million people — spent nothing. for maintenance or upgrades.

I have noticed disturbing trends in the situation of those living in poor housing.

In my book, “Stacked Decks,” I explore the links between urban housing, race, gender, and income inequality.

Since at least the 1970s, real estate agents and lenders have exploited the precarious financial situation of black women and sold them mortgages on homes in poor condition.

Today – 50 years later – these homes pose even greater health and safety risks to their owners than when they first bought them.

The I-10 freeway passes through residential neighborhoods in New Orleans shown here after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Jerry Grayson/Helifilms Australia PTY Ltd/Getty Images

Studies show that after less than two years of ownership, dilapidation makes it difficult for low-income homeowners to maintain a livable home.

Unaddressed repairs such as leaky roofs or broken pipes often result in code violations and lawsuits, resulting in liens, foreclosures, and the possibility of homelessness.

The situation is worse for black women, who have far less wealth, on average, than their white or male counterparts. Without money to pay for repairs, women homeowners risk going deeper into debt if they carry out repairs.

Climate change means these problems are getting worse due to increased rainfall and temperature extremes.

Doris, a homeowner in Chicago, told us in 2021 about her leaky old roof and flooding in her basement. She explained that the flooding was partly due to the overflow of drainage pipes belonging to the nearby town.

“Every time it rains, the water comes in,” she said. “By the way the sewers weren’t clean…so much water came into my basement that my washer and dryer were floating on the water.” An insurance claim covered some of the cost of this repair for Doris, and the town is experimenting with new ways to deal with floodwaters, but water still enters when it rains hard.

Racism and sexism in the housing sector

The racism in the housing industry is now well known. The real estate industry has at various times in history excluded black Americans from home ownership, included them through predatory loans and deals, and reinforced racial segregation by denying loans to blacks. and other minority residents. Known as redlining, the practice has become a self-fulfilling prophecy of divestment and declining values.

But real estate agents and mortgage brokers were also sexist.

These real estate agents and mortgage brokers knew that black women had limited options and assumed they would be likely to default on their mortgages.

Black women constantly saw themselves selling homes that needed repairs.

A lot can happen to a house in 50 years.

Buildings naturally deteriorate over time, due to the combination of aging building materials and weathering. At some point, all homes need repairs and preventative maintenance.

The roof of a building is covered with a plastic sheet.
A damaged building roof covered with a plastic tarp.
Douglas Sacha/Getty Images

Chicagoan Kimberly cares for her grandson almost full time and told us about her concerns about rotting wood that has made her back porch unsafe.

“We don’t go out the back door at all,” Kimberly said. “We haven’t used this for years. Four years now. For four years we didn’t use the back porch at all.

Decline and environmental injustice

Dilapidation is a problem of environmental injustice. The government has a responsibility to help with reparations because of its role in housing discrimination that has created such racial disparities in housing conditions.

But, like disaster relief, help for homeowners is patchy and hard to come by.

American cities often use lotteries to distribute funds for repairs, barely scratching the surface of the number of homes in need of repair.

Although all houses need repair work over time, disrepair disproportionately affects those with the fewest resources, as maintenance is expensive. Dilapidation also leads to health and safety issues, as do other environmental injustices, such as the location of highways and the location of polluting factories.

Dilapidation can also force people out of their homes because they cannot afford repairs.

But making repairs can exacerbate the debt.

All of this means that owning a home, or even paying off a mortgage, does not guarantee that homes will remain affordable, an asset or a safe haven.

Recognizing dilapidation as environmental racism could be a step to ensuring homes are all of those things.

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