New Orleans When I wrote Citizen Wealth, published in 2009, I proudly recorded the role that ACORN played in increasing the homeownership rate of Black and Hispanic Americans over a period of thirty-years between 1977-78 and 2007-2008. We had fought, along with many others, for the legislation in Congress that passed the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) and the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act (HMDA) in the 1970s. We then followed up on that opening with years of campaigns against local, regional, and national banks. Two of the first three CRA hearings held by the Federal Reserve Bank on CRA violations were brought by ACORN, first in St. Louis and then in New Orleans. By the mid-1980s, we had secured agreements with a host of banks that forced billions to be spent to bust redlining and offer financing in low-and-moderate-income neighborhoods. I calculated that the impact of the agreements negotiated, just by ACORN, brought six-million largely minority families into homeownership.
I now spend a lot of time, particularly after the Great Recession, and the contemporary difficulty for these same families to be able to own homes, wondering if we shouldn’t have spent more time pushing for decent and affordable rental units. The numbers, most recently displayed in frightening detail in the National Geographic, of all places, on the continuing ownership gap make it feel like we were running in place and were shadow boxing rather than winning one round after another, as it felt at the time. For Black Americans the home ownership rate rose from the very low 40s to over 47% before the collapse. Now the number is around 42%, darned close to what it was forty-five years ago when we began to engage these campaigns so fiercely. Equally disappointing, the gap is even larger between white homeowners and Black homeowners. Now, whites are at 70%, while Blacks are at 42% – a 28-point spread. Then the spread was 25 or 26 points. I don’t regret the work. It was a righteous fight, and it made a big difference in innumerable lives for members and other families, but, sadly, it didn’t make the change in the country that was needed.
The National Geographic map did reveal a silver lining, when they dug deeply into where the gap was wider or narrower around the United States. The South shines a bit brighter on this score. Where we had huge programs in New Orleans, Houston, Dallas, Washington, Chicago, and St. Louis among other cities, there was either parity, a small miracle, or only the narrowest gap. In some cases, Black ownership exceeded white ownership. Our programs in New York City, Boston, and Philly also clearly made a difference, but to quote the Geographic “When Black Americans left the South in great numbers during the 20thcentury, many arrived in urban areas [in the North] where racist backlash to those migrations would limit housing options.”
Liars use numbers, but numbers also speak the truth. These ownership gaps also are wealth gaps, and they are getting worse. No matter how much financial literacy and other programs are promoted, or groups struggle as ACORN did to create justice in housing markets, it will take something huge to make the needed difference. Reparations estimates are around eleven-trillion now. The longer we wait to achieve real equality, the more it will cost, and the total will be minor in terms of dollars compared to what it continues to do to us as a people.