Black History Month: Challenges in Housing
As we celebrate Black History Month, it is important not to lose sight of some of the significant challenges that Black families still face in Clifton and the United States generally. The Clifton Times invited readers to tell us what they thought were some of the most pressing issues facing Black families in Clifton. One of them was housing and housing discrimination.
Although the Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin, sex, (and as amended) handicap and family status, many Black families and other families from marginalized groups are finding it much harder to find housing than white families.
According to the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, just 38.4% of Black New Jersey households are owner-occupied homes compared to 75.9% of white New Jersey households. In addition, Black New Jerseyans are 2.1 times more likely to be denied a loan for the purchase of a home than white New Jerseyans. Barriers to Black homeownership include the racial wealth gap itself which limits access to homeownership, high housing costs, higher home lending costs, including a lack of access to fair credit and credit scoring systems. Even when Black New Jerseyans are able to overcome these obstacles and purchase homes, Black families’ homes are often undervalued due to ongoing segregation and are more vulnerable to foreclosure. The Brookings Institute put out a report showing that homes in Black neighborhoods are valued roughly 21% to 23% below what their valuations would be in non-Black neighborhoods.
The Clifton Times spoke to Maria Williamson Ramirez, an educator, activist, scholar, and Director of Equity Initiatives at NYU Steinhardt, and the founder of Ask Maria About Equity, where she consults with organizations on anti-racism about her experience buying a home in Clifton. When she was buying her home in 2019, she faced two main issues. Her first challenge was finding a lender, and her second was finding sellers and communities that would accept Black buyers. The third major issue that many Black homeowners face is that homes owned by Black families routinely appraise lower than those owned by white families. Maria experienced that directly when she wanted to sell that house and buy a new one (also in Clifton).
Finding a Lender.
Fifty years after the enactment of the Fair Housing Act, African American families continue to be denied conventional mortgage loans at rates far exceeding those of their white counterparts. When finding a lender, Williamson-Ramirez knew her credit had to be excellent, she would need to have a large up front deposit, and she would need to show consistent employment. Getting to a point where she and her husband felt comfortable beginning the search delayed the homebuying process for her, as it does for many Black families. Black families are also less likely to have generational family wealth, due to systemic racial issues, which results in it being very hard to come up with the up front deposit or to get co-signors or guarantors on loans.
Finding a House.
When Maria first bought a home in Clifton in 2019, she was told by their realtor that not all areas of North Jersey and Clifton were racially diverse and inclusive, or would be welcoming to their family. They would go to open houses in some areas and be made to feel unwelcome, so they would leave early. She told us that she felt very acutely how unwelcome they would be - especially in the area of Clifton bordering Montclair. She and her former partner were able to finally find a home in the Albion section of Clifton.
As she points out, Clifton is proud of its diversity, but it is not integrated if all the Black and Brown folks are living in one area of town, while other areas remain predominantly white. Clifton's demographic make-up in 2020 was white (non-Hispanic) (45%), white (Hispanic) (20.4%), Other Hispanic (13.2%), Asian (9.34%) and Black/African American (non-Hispanic) (4.34%), with a total population of 85,201.
Selling the house.
When Maria wanted to sell her first home and buy another, she also faced some challenges. She was acutely aware of the experience of families like the Tate-Austins. Paul Austin and Tenisha Tate-Austin were suspicious when their home in Marin County, California was appraised far lower than surrounding homes. So they had a white friend pretend to own their home, removed any signs that a Black family owned it, and received an appraisal for their home that was nearly half a million dollars higher than the previous estimate.The couple filed a lawsuit in federal court in San Francisco, arguing that racial discrimination played a role in the low valuation of their home, and that the appraiser had violated the Fair Housing Act. A judge dismissed a "negligent misrepresentation" claim in the suit in August of 2022.
Maria had offers for the home that were close to $500,000 but when the appraiser appraised the house for below that amount, it meant that the buyers could not buy at the price - even though the realtors and other experts had agreed that the price was appropriate for that property in the Albion section of Clifton. Because the appraisal was lower than the offers, Maria had to accept an offer that was nearly $50,000 lower than what realtors said it was worth on the market.. Maria told us that she ended up paying more for a similar house in the Athenia section from a Latine couple, which confirmed to her that her first home had been undervalued.
Local Realtor Confirms
The Clifton Times spoke to a local realtor who confirmed for us that there is discrimination against Black, Latine, Jewish, and Asian families in Clifton. He told us that there are sellers and landlords who will expressly tell him not to bring certain groups for their properties, or who will turn away qualified applicants based on their race or ethnicity. He told us that even though it is illegal to discriminate against those who receive federal rental assistance through Housing Choice Voucher program (more commonly known as Section 8, which subsidizes housing for low-income tenants through direct rent payments to landlords), he routinely has landlords who tell him not to bring tenants with vouchers to see their properties. As he has a non-discrimination form that he has all of his clients sign, he told us that if a client insists on discriminating against the people he brings, he will terminate the relationship because “it is never worth being a bad person.” He encourages Cliftonites to look for realtors who have a large bank of reviews from clients with a diverse representation of backgrounds and for realtors to not work with people who are discriminating against others.
The Impact of Discrimination
This disparity in homeownership and home valuation results in a wealth disparity for Black and Latine households. The 2019 US Census shows that Non-Hispanic White householders had a median household wealth of $187,300 compared with $14,100 for Black householders and $31,700 for Hispanic householders. Households that owned their home had a median wealth of $305,000, substantially larger than those who rented, which was only $4,084. Even when home equity was excluded from total wealth, the median wealth of households that owned their home was $125,500, 30.7 times that of the median wealth of households who rented.
Over a lifetime, paying rent for longer instead of being able to buy a home, paying higher interest rates on mortgages, being forced to buy in a less desirable neighborhood or school district (and therefore having homes that appreciate in value less than those in more desirable areas), having homes appraised for less, and the other impacts of discrimination in the housing market result in substantial costs to Black families.
What Can You Do?
If you feel that your rights have been violated, you can file a complaint under the Fair Housing Act with the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights within 180 days of the alleged offense, at one of their regional offices. You can also file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. You do not need to worry about having all the evidence, as they will investigate the claims made.
What Can Clifton Do?
Mayor Anzaldi had proposed that Clifton create an Advisory Committee on Civil Rights to address many of the issues which came up after the challenges to May Yuasa's Unity mural, and to generally to look into ways to work cooperatively to eliminate discrimination and the result of past discrimination, and to address issues of diversity and inclusion in Clifton.
The Committee shall:
A. Work cooperatively with other persons to eliminate discrimination and the result of past discrimination, to recommend ways and means of initiating and improving City government programs designed to eliminate discrimination or to remove the effects of past discrimination, to develop programs for coordination of community efforts to address problems involving tensions in the community and to make recommendations to the Municipal Council for the development of policies, procedures and programs that will aid in the prevention and elimination of all types of discrimination in Clifton.
The Advisory Committee will also collect information and put together an annual report on civil rights in the City of Clifton in order to best help the City and the Municipal Council address the issues.
Experts have suggested that a critical first step for reparative action is an audit of a city’s own history and practices. Once there is an understanding how housing discrimination has happened, cities can look into the available options and applicable legal frameworks for solutions, and can engage the local affected communities for their input and ideas, and to build networks of community support as well as strengthen the relationships between the city and communities of color.
The Clifton Times asked City Manager Dominick Villano and Clifton Municipal Council Member Rosemary Pino to provide us information on this Advisory Committee, but have not received a response as of the publishing of this article.