Aug 08, 2022 5 mins, 30 secs
This was the early 1960s and like most Black families in the neighborhood who were land contract buyers, York was paying dearly for it – and living in constant fear of losing his home.

Often described as a “poor man’s mortgage,” land contract buyers were on the hook for a down payment, high monthly payments, and maintenance of the house while the deed remained in the seller’s name until the very last payment was made.

Many working-class Black families in the 1950s and 60s were forced to turn to speculative sellers after the federal government refused to insure mortgages in redlined African American neighborhoods.

Speculators often bought homes at a discount from white families as they fled racially changing neighborhoods only to sell them just months later to Black families at inflated prices and high interest rates.

In the 1950s and 60s, 85% of Black families who bought a home in Chicago did so under a land installment contract, according to experts.  .

The same financial institutions that denied creditworthy Black buyers were happy to give mortgages to white speculators who then sold them to Black families for double or quadruple what they paid, says Beryl Sattar, professor of history at Rutgers University and the author of Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and the Exploitation of Black Urban America.

Discriminatory lending practices, such as land contracts, were not the only barriers Black homebuyers faced historically. Decades of housing segregation, systemic denial of loans or insurance in predominantly minority areas, and a persistent income gap have stood in the way of Black homeownership, curtailing their ability to build generational wealth. .

More than half a century after the Fair Housing Act was signed into law in 1968, not only is the homeownership gap between white and Black Americans wider than it was in 1960, the homeownership rate of Black Americans is expected to be lower (40%) in 2040 than it was in 2020 (41%), according to a study by the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C., based research organization focused on upward mobility and equity.

While some of the structural and systemic issues may have been alleviated with the passage of the Fair Housing Act, issues including financial education and awareness can still limit homeownership for lower-income households (a disproportionate share of whom are Black and Hispanic) or trap them into exploitative transactions.

In 1968 – almost a decade after the Yorks bought their home on contract – that a grassroots movement led to the establishment of the Contract Buyers League.

“Sometimes she went without so that we could have,” says Sandra.

USA TODAY found documentation in the National Archives which showed the Yorks were listed as plaintiffs in a 1969 lawsuit along with the Contract Buyers League. .

More than 70 boxes that contain information on two lawsuits that were filed on behalf of contract buyers are housed at the National Archives in Chicago.

The Yorks also were among the contract buyers who had withheld payment on their home, which was sold to them in 1959 for $23,000, according to documentation in the archives.

From 2018-2020, while the overall homeownership gap between white and Black households was marked by a 30-percentage point difference, the gap was much narrower for those with higher incomes and college education.

Among those earning $100,000- $149,000, the homeownership gap between white and Black households dropped to 15 percentage points; for those who earned $150,000 or more, the gap narrowed to 11 percentage points, with homeownership rates at 88% and 77% for white and Black households respectively, according to Urban Institute data.

Marva Watkins, 81, who has owned four homes through the decades starting in 1967 on Chicago’s South Side, says Black households with a college education, good incomes, and steady jobs have had access to financing and a shot at the American Dream at least since the 1960s.

Soon, most of her Black college friends also had bought homes.

Building equity in each home helped with the next purchase, she says.

The sub-prime mortgage crisis was brewing, he says, and mortgage brokers tried to have him buy a more expensive home than he could afford.

Dorita and Willie Taylor of Peekskill, New York, bought their first home in 1983 when they were in their early 30s.

In 2016, the median wealth of white families was $171,000, or 10 times that of Black households, whose median family wealth is $17,600, according to Pew Research. .

Nancy Hite-Norde, 66, a realtor with Coldwell Banker in Westchester County, says the low homeownership rate among Black families is a good barometer of the treatment of Black people in this country.

While it’s true that those with strong credit scores and steady work history can buy a home regardless of race, it takes Black families longer to assemble those financial building blocks because of historical discrimination in employment, financing, greater college debt and disinvestment in majority Black neighborhoods, she says.

Falling homeownership rates will make it harder for Black families to pass on wealth to future generations, says Janneke Ratcliffe, vice president of the Housing Finance Policy Center at the Urban Institute.

Nathan MacChesney of the Chicago Plan Commission created the covenant in 1927 to make sure realtors didn't sell homes in white neighborhoods to Black buyers, Orenstein said. .

The report titled "The Plunder of Black Wealth in Chicago," calculated that African Americans purchasing on contract paid, on average, $587 more each month (in April 2019 dollars) than they would have had they paid the fair price for their home and had a conventional or FHA- backed mortgages.

The difference between what the Yorks agreed to pay over 25 years for a home they bought for $23,000 in 1959 and the seller's purchase price of $15,000 (obtained by the data set collected by the researchers) is $22,150 in $1959 or $157,814 in 2022 inflation-adjusted dollars.

“So investors were buying them in bulk, and they decided to sell them, quote-unquote, using a contract for deed or land contract,” says Mancini who co-authored an NCLC paper titled Toxic Transactions. “In part, because that was the most advantageous way for that investor to sell that involved a very easy way of taking back the property if someone defaulted.”.

"The white family just refused to leave," says Sandra York, who works as a paralegal

The house, which their parents bought under contract in 1959, sits just a few blocks away from where, seven years later, in 1966, Martin Luther King, Jr., would move to — and bring attention to the poor living conditions of Black families on the West Side of Chicago

The American dream of homeownership has been achieved in the family, with both Sandra and Donald having owned multiple homes over the years. 

Neither encountered any barriers to homeownership when they bought homes in the 1990s and early 2000s

Asked why they think the Black homeownership gap persists, Sandra York said:

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