The first several years of the 21st century were relatively good ones for the housing market—at least on the surface. Homeownership climbed to around 70 percent, and all that demand meant lots of new construction and increasing home equity for existing owners. If someone was lucky enough to buy and sell before the market went bust, or if their home wasn’t in an area with catastrophic value loss, they probably increased their net worth just by keeping a roof overhead. Unless they were black.
“Becoming a homeowner was not a fruitful asset accumulation strategy for low- and moderate-income black families in the 2000 decade, in either the short- or medium-term,” write Sandra J. Newman and C. Scott Holupka, authors of a new study from Johns Hopkins University.
To come to that conclusion they looked at data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), a representative survey of 5,000 American families. They find that white Americans with low net worth who bought during the boom years made out much better than black Americans who had the same timing and similar financial circumstances. Black families who bought in 2005 lost almost $20,000 of net worth by 2007, according to the paper. By 2011 those losses were more like $30,000. White homeowners didn’t have quite the same problem. Those who purchased in 2007 saw their net worth grow by $18,000 in two years, and then those gains eroded, leaving them with an increase of $13,000 by 2011. All told, the black families lost, on average, 43 percent of their wealth.
That news is perhaps to be expected given the inequities that exists in the housing market, including the quality of financing people have access to and the prospects of the neighborhoods they are buying into. The researchers note that neighborhood location, predatory loan practices, and how long families were able to hold on to homes all likely played a role in how white and black families fared during the early aughts.
Newman and Holupka also investigated how black families would have fared if they had chosen to rent instead of buy. In order to do that, they took a look at the net worth (that is all assets minus all liabilities) for families that did have a mortgage and families who didn’t. Generally, net worth for renters increases marginally each year—as workers get raises, or families pay down debt. For first-time homebuyers, those increases can be much faster, thanks to both the acquisition of a large asset and home value appreciation. But they found that in general black families would have been better off if they hadn’t bought homes at all.
According to the data white families who rented would have ultimately gained $6,600 between 2005 and 2011—less than they earned as homeowners, but still a nice gain. But for black families the choice to rent instead of buy could have moved them from negative to positive net worth. In two years, between 2005 and 2007, wealth would have increased to $1,300, and it would have hit $2,700 by 2011.
Those gains, to be certain, aren’t astronomical, but they are also certainly more promising than the tens of thousands in disproportionate losses that black homeowners experienced and are still trying to overcome. For black homeowners, there were never enough financial gains to offset the massive losses they sustained. But sadly, renting may not be much of a solution. In most places, rent just keeps on rising, which means fewer options for families already struggling to build wealth.