In recovering urban areas, homeownership makes all the difference
Not that long ago, holiday decorations wouldn’t survive more than a few nights in Delene Falcon’s Frog Hollow neighborhood.
When Falcon and some of her Hartford neighbors caught a bit of the holiday spirit and decorated their front porches a couple of years ago, drug addicts from the street’s vacant properties woke her family at night as they tried to steal them.
Things have changed since then.
This year, they decorated for Halloween.
“I see my neighbor, she puts a pumpkin on her steps, and — nobody took it,” Falcon said, fighting back tears. “Nobody took any of those pumpkins. It’s mind blowing.”
Now, as fall nears its end and she and her neighbors begin throwing out their outdated Halloween pumpkins, they debate whether it is too early to put out the Christmas decorations.
So what changed on this street in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the country? Homeownership.
Five years ago, about half the lots on this street were boarded-up homes or empty lots littered with overgrown brush and abandoned couches and mattresses. Nearly every resident rented.
Now, a playground sits on a cleaned-up lot, and several of the blighted properties, which were purchased and renovated by the Southside Institutions Neighborhood Alliance with financial assistance from the state, were bought by families like the Falcons.
“The difference I’ve seen here from when we first moved — I could cry,” she said. “There are no empty buildings where they can go and shoot up. Someone lives there now, they care about that property they own. They and I are not just going to let someone drug up in front of our homes,” said Falcon of the duplex she and her husband purchased for $152,000 four years ago.
Delene is Jamaican, her husband is Puerto Rican, and they are among the first in their families to own their own home.
“It is a dream home. It is more than I ever dreamed of in every sense. I didn’t dream of being able to own something this beautiful. If this home was going for the rate that it was supposed to, I wouldn’t probably be able to afford it.”
Homeownership has long been one of the best ways for families to accumulate wealth, but for generations, it has been elusive for many Black and Latino families and for those interested in owning in certain communities. Almost 85 years ago, federal officials and mortgage lenders began rating mortgage risk based on neighborhood, race, ethnicity and economic status and refused to lend outside of white areas — a practice known as redlining — and many white homeowners refused to sell to minorities. Though the practice was outlawed years ago, the consequence of perpetuating poverty festers, since it prevented minority residents from building wealth through homeownership.
Making the inequality even worse today are exclusionary local zoning requirements that thrive throughout Connecticut. Requiring a single-family home be on a lot that is at least one acre, or forbidding duplexes from being constructed, drive up the cost of purchasing a home and continue to put homeownership out of reach for many Black and Latino families. Connecticut also has some of the oldest housing stock in the nation, and so in many parts of Connecticut cities, it doesn’t make financial sense to purchase a home that needs major renovations because the owner will be underwater on that investment immediately.
The difference I’ve seen here from when we first moved — I could cry. There are no empty buildings where they can go and shoot up. Someone lives there now, they care about that property they own.”
The outcome is jarring: White residents in Connecticut are twice as likely to own a home than are people of color. Compared to other states, Connecticut has the second-largest gap for homeownership rates between its white and Latino residents, the largest gap between mixed-race and white residents, and the 15th biggest gap between Black and white residents, a CT Mirror analysis of Census data shows.
It’s not that white residents in Connecticut are more likely to own their homes — at 76%, the homeownership rate for white residents is almost identical to the national rate. But compared to other states, Connecticut ranks 47th for Latino homeownership (34%), 46th for mixed-race homeownership (42%), and 18th for Black homeownership (40%).
This dearth of homeownership among some Connecticut residents is a driving force behind Connecticut’s extreme wealth inequality and segregation. Fairfield County is home to the largest wealth disparity among metros in the U.S., Census Bureau data show, and is also the most segregated, Brown University data show.
This inequality is on full display in the state’s cities. In Hartford, just 24% of the homes are occupied by a homeowner, compared to 67% statewide. A city with mostly minority residents, only 16% of Hartford’s Hispanic residents and 28% of Black residents own a home.
In Falcon’s neighborhood, vacant lots and buildings account for one in 12 properties. Homeownership of the mostly 2- and 3-unit homes, owned primarily by absentee investors, has declined sharply over the last decade.
“Some Hartford neighborhoods, like Frog Hollow, are suffering from more extensive decline or disinvestment. The needs of these neighborhoods may call for different strategies reflecting their conditions,” wrote Alan Mallach of the Center for Community Progress in his November 2019 analysis of housing conditions in Hartford. “The share of property purchases by investors rather than homebuyers both reflects market demand and affects neighborhood stability … The City might want to give priority either to increasing homebuyer activity and/or to better monitor the activities of a growing body of investor landlords.”
But the city’s resources are stretched thin, and state and federal funding for housing is largely focused on building affordable rental units rather than boosting homeownership for these underserved populations and in uninvested communities.
This imbalance has frustrated some lawmakers, including state Sen. John Fonfara, a Democrat from Hartford and co-chairman of the legislature’s powerful budget-writing committee.
“I’m not saying homeownership is the panacea, but there needs to be a balance, and this is not even on the Department of Housing’s radar screen,” Fonfara said. “Someone’s greatest chance of accumulating wealth resides in them owning a home. People who own are typically invested in their community more than when they’re renting. … The goal is to try to get it to where people feel like ‘this is where I live and I care about the school. I care about there’s a drug dealer on the corner’ – versus ‘I’m just staying here. I’m not going to care about those things as much because I don’t plan on staying here.'”
Some celebrating a hot housing market, others discouraged
Standing in front of a U-Haul moving truck in the suburban town of Newtown last month, Gov. Ned Lamont celebrated a report that home sales in the Hartford area are the third-highest in the nation.
“I think people are rediscovering the Connecticut lifestyle and what it means,” he said, referring people moving into Connecticut from out of state, namely from their cramped quarters in New York City into Connecticut’s suburbs. His comments follow years of people writing op-eds in newspapers across the state about why they are moving out of Connecticut. “Those moving vans are turning around.”
A closer look at the data compiled by RE/MAX, however, shows that while September sales in the Hartford region were up 33% compared to last September – the third-highest increase among a metro area selected from each state – not everyone is benefiting. That’s because about half as many homes are for sale – 3,120 this September vs. 6,733 last September. That drop in supply coupled with the influx of buyers is driving up housing prices and causing bidding wars. The price of homes for sale in September was up 10%, and homes sold that month 15% over the previous September.
First-time and lower-income buyers are typically the losers in these bidding wars, several realtors told the CT Mirror.
“I am having problems for my clients,” said Deanna Crooks, a realtor in the Hartford area whose clients are mostly first-time buyers who plan to purchase with an FHA loan for lower-income people. “They’re so excited. Buying a home is a big deal for them. And we will make an offer, but with this market, it’s brutal, more so than any other year. In the past, I’m accustomed to two or three competing offers, whereas this year, you’re looking at competing against 14 other offers. That’s the norm right now.”
Crooks is also struggling to overcome some sellers’ and agents’ fears about choosing someone with an FHA loan over someone with a traditional mortgage. They worry there will be more red tape with the FHA appraisal that is required before closing to ensure the home meets “minimum property standards.”
I’m not saying homeownership is the panacea, but there needs to be a balance, and this is not even on the Department of Housing’s radar screen.”
She has been trying since the spring to get a home in East Hartford, Manchester or the South End of Hartford for one of her families. The family offered $10,000 to $15,000 above asking price on the last four homes, to no avail. One agent told her it was the highest offer but the seller was weary that an FHA loan would slow things down or drive up costs.
“That’s discriminatory to me,” she said. “It really gets my goat.”
Connecticut has fair-housing laws that make it illegal to discriminate against how someone plans to pay for their housing costs, but it is murky on whether those protections extend beyond renters to home buyers. There is also a lack of research on this subject, so it is unclear whether these FHA appraisals do actually drive up costs or slow down sales.
The hot housing market that Lamont and realtors were celebrating in Newtown is also driving up costs for first-time homebuyers and pricing people out of many more neighborhoods.
Jennifer Quaye-Hudson spent more than she budgeted to buy her home in New Haven.
“Prices were much more inflated than they would have been,” she said.
And while she and her husband were always open to purchasing a home in a disinvested community – “the ‘hood,” as she proudly refers to the neighborhood where she grew up and now owns a home – she also points out the current market didn’t give her family much of a choice.
“We cast our net, but really — where it would have been an option before to look at [the New Haven neighborhoods of] East Rock or … Westville, it’s not an option now,” she said. “Before we could have at least considered it.”
Experts say the likely result of this hot housing market and economic downturn is that the disparities in homeownership will persist. In Connecticut, the disparities have not narrowed at all over the last decade, Census data show.
Nationwide, black homeownership was the slowest to recover from the last recession, and gaps in homeownership have grown worse since the federal government passed the landmark Fair Housing Act amid civil unrest in the 1960s, research from the left-leaning think tank Urban Institute found.
“COVID hit Black and Hispanic residents the hardest. More of them are falling behind paying both their mortgage and rental payments, which is concerning. It is likely that the racial inequalities in the housing market will increase further even after we come out of the pandemic,” said Jung Choi, a research associate at the Urban Institute said.
It seems to have already begun. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s research division reported this fall that FHA loans to lower-income buyers who plan to spend half of their income on mortgage payments were down 14%, and loans to those with lower credit scores were down 34%. The researchers were unsure if the drop was the result of this population not trying to buy or because they were being denied the ability to purchase, adding that the total number of FHA loans overall has not dropped.
Where state government fits in
Lamont, a Democrat, is aware that some people may be left behind as the housing market grows, but he is optimistic that things will work out.
“I welcome the growth. I welcome the opportunity. I also believe in having affordable housing in downtown areas in particular so you’re not dependent upon an automobile. And to make sure that we manage our growth in way that preserves our open space and makes sure that people who work in town can afford to live in town,” he said during his visit to Newtown, a town with high housing costs, exclusionary zoning regulations, and one of the lowest rates of affordable housing in Connecticut.
A developer has been attempting unsuccessfully for years to build affordable apartments right off a highway exit and a short walk from the town center.
State and federal funding to construct affordable housing, however, is overwhelmingly aimed at opening rental units for those who are extremely poor in communities already consumed with poverty. In Falcon’s Hartford neighborhood, half of the homes are reserved exclusively for the poor, a 2019 study from the Connecticut Economic Research Center found.
Kiley Gosselin, a member of the Connecticut Housing Finance Authority board, a state agency responsible for facilitating the construction of affordable housing with state, federal and private funding, said homeownership needs more attention.
“Federal and state home ownership support and financing programs have long been seen as ancillary to the bigger affordable housing investment and community development programs,” said Gosselin, who is also the executive director of the Partnership for Strong Communities, an advocacy group that lobbies for inclusive housing policies. She added that existing homeownership assistance programs “haven’t always been successful in reaching the intended buyers and supporting a long term, equal path to wealth building. Given the fact that communities of color have, for generations, been prevented from accessing and continue to face disadvantages in the home-buying marketplace, we’re long overdue for a review and re-evaluation of homeownership support programs, how they function and how they’re funded.”
State programs aimed at boosting homeownership show certain groups are underrepresented or only mirror the state’s demographics, which prevents the gap from narrowing. For example, among the 3,200 who received a CHFA homebuyer mortgage in 2019, 16% were Latino and 10% Black, even though these groups account for 17% and 13% of the state’s population, respectively.
The state does have a loan program that helps low-income residents with down-payment assistance and other closing costs, but changes made in 2017 scaled back how much the state would help. Those changes resulted in half as many people getting help — just 941 families in 2019 – and the level of support cut by one-third, from $16,000 to $5,500.
Nandini Natarajan, the executive director of CHFA, said that the board last month finished its strategic plan, which now includes boosting public awareness of the homeownership assistance programs they offer. Last week, the agency also reversed the changes from 2017 to the Downpayment Assistance Program in an effort to make it easier for minorities to purchase homes during the economic downturn.
“One of the biggest impediments of homeownership for person of low or moderate income, whether they’re Black or Hispanic or in a minority community, is saving up for the down payment,” she said. “We dedicated one of our key goals to actually do work around that priority [of minority home ownership], which includes marketing and communicating our CHFA homeownership first time homebuyer program more than we currently do, since there are probably a lot of people who don’t know what CHFA does, who we are and how we play a role when they’re becoming a first-time homebuyer.”
Fonfara, the state senator who grew up in a housing project in Hartford, said he would also like to see CHFA and the Department of Housing to stop building only affordable housing as rentals and for extremely low-income residents. Such policies are hurting Hartford.
“If we’re only going to have people at a certain income level, you’re just concentrating poverty. You’re not enabling someone who is starting to do better in their life, which is what we say we want, right? We say we want that, but we really don’t want that when we have our governmental policy saying, ‘No, you need to stay poor. You need to stay poor.'”
The state needs to shift its priorities to these disinvested neighborhoods so more people can buy a home that has been rehabilitated or make it financially feasible for potential homeowners to do the necessary renovations, he said.
In 2014, Fonfara shepherded a state law through the General Assembly that he’d hoped would spur homeownership in communities with especially low rates by waiving those owners from having to pay local property or state income taxes.
Such a benefit, however, would have been expensive for the state and cities – and so the law was never implemented.
“People don’t want to leave Hartford. This is where church is. This is where their friends are. This is where they grew up. A Black family, a Latino family should not have to move to Windsor, or Manchester or West Hartford in order to do better in life. If they want to do that. That’s great. They should be able to, but they shouldn’t have to. The message we send in Hartford, mainly because of governmental policies is, if you want to do better, you have to get out of here,” said Fonfara. “We need to create an environment where people say, ‘I don’t have to leave. I can buy a nice home here.'”
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