A Four-Part Series Exploring the Realities of Marginalized Communities from Within.
What follows is the final installment of a four-part series examining the reasons why poor and minority Americans are often unable to believe in equitable access to homeownership and the benefits that entails. Many scholars have studied the effects of poverty and institutional racism on the poor and minority populations of the U.S. Few from within these communities have been able to speak for themselves. This series is an attempt to let a member of this population speak for himself. The author, Aaron Morales, is a Latino who grew up in poverty in the U.S. Southwest during the height of 1980s gang violence that ushered in our modern era of international gangs, cartels, and organized crime operations stemming from south of the U.S. border. Though his experience is in no way indicative of all poor and minority Americans, it is still a valuable insight into the root cause of the mindset of assumed exclusion.
Part Four: The Fog of Confusion
This brings me to my final point: even though there are people and institutions that truly want to help, finding them is in itself a Herculean task. The reason? There is a fog of confusion.
Because we are constantly bombarded with advertising and information everywhere we turn, we tend to shut down and dismiss everything. The information is out there, we are mostly aware, but how are we to find it and how are we to know what is real and what is a scam?
In a recent NPR Planet Money article, this conundrum is on full display. California—in an effort to get eligible citizens to take advantage of a recently instituted state Earned Income Tax Credit (CalEITC) for each of their dependents—went on an advertising blitz targeting the communities who would most benefit from the tax refund. To the state’s surprise, the advertising campaign had absolutely “zero effect.” While this came as a shock to the do-gooders trying to get “free money” into the hands of the state’s most needy families, the reality is that the document (see p.26 of the PDF) they sent to eligible families largely failed the sniff test. It appeared to be a scam, coming from an unfamiliar source, promising money the intended audience most likely didn’t believe actually existed or that they were legally entitled to receive.
The months of agonizing labor the California Policy Lab put into community outreach and a follow-up report came up empty, further underscoring the issues raised in the previous three installments of our blog series on “The Fog of Poverty.” The money is there, but those who need it most either do not trust the veracity of the source, or they are simply too mired in the muck of poverty to pay attention to the messaging. Try as they might to “nudge” people into behaviors or actions that would ostensibly improve their lives, the targeted messaging failed to achieve the desired result.
Another case in point: In their investigative series on modern-day redlining, “Kept Out,” Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting found that despite the well-intentioned Community Reinvestment Act of 1977 that required banks to lend in the underserved communities that need it most, instead of lending to the poor and minority residents of these communities, the “unintended beneficiaries” have been…you guessed it, White Americans. Rather than investing in the communities that already exist in these underserved and predominantly minority neighborhoods, banks continue to deny loans to people of color at unconscionably higher rates than their White counterparts, and instead they loan to White people—often well off—who buy up the cheap properties and come into the community in waves.
So begins the process known as gentrification. Not only do the properties switch over into the hands of community outsiders, the values of property inevitably increase, pushing rents and home prices beyond the reach of the people who have long been settled there. The most commonplace result: native community members are forced from the community and must fend for themselves in trying to find affordable housing in nearby neighborhoods, towns, or cities.
And so, this provides another example of how the communities who need funding most, the people who would benefit most from fair lending, are largely unaware of the reality that laws like the Community Reinvestment Act require banks to lend in these areas. The banks literally throw money at White investors and would-be homeowners, but lock out the very people who are established, multi-generational residents.
Yet, even if a poor or minority resident of these communities were to become aware of the potential availability of a home loan for their neighborhood, the very process of home buying is scary, confusing, and as convoluted as the U.S. Tax Code. To someone like myself, who eventually rose above poverty with a bit of tenacity and massive amounts of luck, once I finally did allow myself to believe that homeownership might be a possibility, I still had no idea how to navigate the process. I’d heard of things like the FHA, but I had no idea what it was and how—if at all—it applied to me.
I have a graduate degree from a Big 10 university, and still, even with my luck and education, I was utterly confused about where to begin. Which programs were legitimate? Which banks were lending fairly? How would I prove to them that I deserved to buy my first home, which was a modest affair in a very poor part of a mid-sized Indiana town?
I did my research because I was lucky enough to be able to do so, now that I was no longer drowning in poverty and could come up for air. Even then, there was a deluge of information to sift through, and I wound up getting a mediocre mortgage. Looking back, I know I should’ve been given a better loan based on my credit score and the job that I had landed, but I was grateful for a loan in the first place, and so I bit my tongue. I had joined the homeowner class, defying all the obstacles and statistics for someone with my upbringing.
Years later, after I’d sold that home for a loss and bought another one in a different part of town, I was suddenly no longer able to afford payments and the bank swooped in to foreclose on my home. Foreclosure, make no mistake, is a terrifying process. Despite my education and my decent middle class job, I had no idea how the process worked. To this day, I’m still not entirely sure of the many complex stages. I was confused and stressed and stumbled wildly trying to navigate the nightmare of losing my home. Had I known who to turn to for assistance, I might have been able to keep my home.
This is why appropriately targeted messaging is essential. If we engage directly with the communities we hope to serve and help improve, even better than many socially just businesses and institutions already do, then maybe we will catch the eyes of the people who need us most. AHP 75 is an innovative new Community Impact initiative that seeks to do just that. Our goal is to go out into these actual communities and educate and inform them through our agent outreach program. We will help cut through the fog, the blurred vision that keeps the people most in need from seeing or seeking out the help that exists to bring them into the realm of homeownership and set them on the path to financial independence and generational wealth.
But it is essential to remember that this fog of confusion is very real. As is the fog of poverty and mistrust. Add them all together and it begins to become apparent why connecting the underserved population with the services that might help improve their lives is such a difficult task. This three-pronged fog is so engrained and embedded in many of our marginalized communities that the battle for increasing homeownership among minorities—by empowering the potential homebuyers themselves—is not only an uphill one, but also one that requires serious commitment.
As the Social Justice Writer for AHP 75, I am proud to play a role—small though it may be—in reaching out to our marginalized communities, engaging them in meaningful ways through a fellowship of socially conscious realtors and brokers, financial education initiatives, micro mortgages as little as $5000, and debt remediation programs with attorneys who advocate on our clients’ behalf. With the help of AHP 75 and other like-minded organizations and businesses, there is genuine hope we can finally move the needle in the right direction toward closing the homeownership and wealth gaps in America today.
Want to help us make a difference? Visit AHP75.com to learn about our Community Impact initiatives.
Aaron Morales is the Social Justice Writer for AHP 75, based out of Chicago, IL.