Let’s get one thing straight: Housing discrimination is illegal, unethical and just plain wrong.
Apart from some very narrow exceptions, fair housing laws make clear that it’s illegal to deny anyone a fair and equal opportunity to buy or rent a home or obtain a mortgage on the basis of his or her race, religion or other protected characteristics. But unfortunately, neither the illegality nor the immorality of such discrimination has put a stop to it.
Before the enactment of fair housing laws, housing discrimination was often overt and open since, after all, it wasn’t illegal. My grandmother, before her death in July — just two months shy of her 100th birthday — often recalled that she and my grandfather had been discriminated against some 80 years ago when they’d tried to rent an apartment as newlyweds.
All had seemingly been in order until the landlord told them they couldn’t move into the apartment they’d chosen because they were Jewish. Decades later, that slap in the face clearly still stung her every time she recounted this story.
A similar incident occurred when I was a newlywed. A few months after my then-husband and I had moved into a home we’d bought, our new next-door neighbors stopped by to tell us they’d decided to sell their home. They calmly assured us that they wouldn’t sell to just anyone, and their meaning — that no members of a certain minority group would qualify — was quite plain.
They seemed utterly confident that we’d agree with their intentions, perhaps because they had no idea that, like my grandparents, my husband and I, too, were Jewish. To this day, I’ve regretted my stunned silence in the face of their repugnant insinuations.
And yet both of my family stories are small potatoes compared with the unmistakable large-scale racial overtones of the current housing crisis.
Permit me, please, to quote at some length from "The State of the Nation’s Housing 2009," a 40-page report from the prestigious Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University:
High-cost subprime "loans and foreclosures are heavily concentrated in low-income minority neighborhoods. (The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) estimates that the median share of high-cost loans issued from 2004-06 in low-income minority census tracts was nearly one-half while the median share in low-income white neighborhoods was one-third.
In addition, the median foreclosure rate from January 2007 through June 2008 was 8.4 percent in low-income minority neighborhoods — significantly higher than the 6.3 percent in low-income white neighborhoods. …CONTINUED
"Home price declines have hit minority households especially hard. Even before the recession began, the share of minority homeowners with equity cushions of less than 5 percent of the home’s value was twice as high as that of whites (6.9 percent versus 3.4 percent). Because minorities are more likely to live in neighborhoods with heavy foreclosures (where prices have dropped the most), a large share of these households has seen the value of their homes fall below the amount they owe on their mortgages."
Granted, there are a lot of statistics in those two snippets, so here’s a more simply stated recap from the same report: "The incidence of high-cost loans and foreclosures is much higher in minority (neighborhoods) than in white neighborhoods and highest in low-income minority neighborhoods."
Given those sorts of statistics, it’s perhaps not surprising that a number of lawsuits have bought forth allegations of racially discriminatory subprime lending practices in heavily minority cities in states as diverse as California, Illinois, Maryland, Texas and Tennessee. Regardless of whether anyone is actually convicted of criminal activity as a result, the affidavits and declarations in these cases indeed make for interesting reading.
The question needs to be asked: Why didn’t these former bank employees and other industry insiders speak up about these incidents much sooner? Were they stunned into silence by the ugliness of what they observed, as I was 20 years ago? Did they not know these practices were illegal? Or were they just too focused on their own paychecks to care about the harm that was done?
As I told a friend of mine who brought one of these lawsuits to my attention: Much more still needs to be said, and done, about the stubbornly persistent problem of covert and predatory discrimination against homebuyers and homeowners. Because truly, it’s just not right.
Marcie Geffner is a veteran real estate reporter and former managing editor of Inman News. Her news stories, feature articles and columns about home buying, home selling, homeownership and mortgage financing have been published by a long list of real estate Web sites and newspapers. "House Keys," a weekly column about homeownership, is syndicated in print and on the Web by Inman News. Readers are cordially invited to "friend" the author on Facebook.
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