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FORTY-EIGHT YEARS ago, Lennard Powell carved out a piece of the American Dream when he bought a South Berkeley fixer-upper in a largely African American neighborhood and settled in to raise a family.
That dream is now on the verge of dissolving in a long-running quagmire of code violations and court proceedings, leaving Powell among a growing number of African Americans for whom homeownership is out of reach.
After buying the home on Harmon Street, Powell and his wife converted the duplex to a single-family home by cutting a hole in the wall at the bottom of the front staircase and affixing a piece of plywood onto one of the front doors.
They turned the upstairs kitchen and living room into bedrooms and ended up with a five-bedroom, two-bath home for themselves and their six children, Powell said.
“Fast forward 46 years, the city came down on me for code violations and, in so many words, insisted that I had to do all this work,” Powell said.
“It’s a story about the legacy and evolution of systemic racism especially in finance and housing markets.”Abbie Langston, Bay Area Equity Atlas
The 79-year-old retired U.S. Postal Service employee and Army veteran said he applied for a “senior citizen rehab loan” from the city but at the same time another city department initiated receivership proceedings against him.
“They used the fact that I never got a permit for a single-family dwelling against me,” Powell said. “The house was taken over by the courts at the city’s behest.”
Powell said the receiver used the home’s equity to borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars for repairs, which he was able to eventually repay, but after years of legal and bureaucratic twists and turns, he’s potentially on the hook for even more.
“I may lose after all,” he said. “The receiver wants 300,000 more dollars, mostly for his attorney fees. He feels like I should pay that. Of course, I can’t. I’d have to sell my house.”
If that happens, Powell would end up like an increasing number of Bay Area residents — particularly people of color — for whom homeownership is no longer a viable dream.
Homeownership in decline
The numbers are even worse when broken down by race, with the African American homeownership rate pegged at just 34 percent and the Latino rate at 40 percent.
The homeownership rate for people who identify as multiracial was 45 percent, for Native Americans it was 46 percent and for Pacific Islanders it was 41 percent.
This compares to a white homeownership rate that was 63 percent in 2019, according to the Bay Area Equity Atlas.
And while the overall Asian American rate was 60 percent, disaggregated data shows some Asian communities are doing far worse than others.
For example, while the homeownership rate in the Taiwanese community was 71 percent, for Koreans it was 46 percent, for Pakistanis it was 43 percent and for Cambodians it was just 39 percent, according to the Atlas.
“The key takeaway for us is understanding the extent to which Black and brown residents in our region have been locked out of opportunities and then dispossessed of those opportunities over the past decade or so,” said Abbie Langston, senior associate with the Bay Area Equity Atlas.
Lack of homeownership in a community can lead to economic instability and is a huge barrier to creating generational wealth.
And in many places, falling homeownership rates mirror another troubling trend — the ongoing exodus of Black and brown residents.
“San Francisco homeownership rates are lower than the rest of the region,” Langston said. “In 2000, white households in San Francisco were 20 percent more likely than Black or Latinx households to own their homes and in 2019, they were 64 percent more likely.”
During that time period, the Black homeownership rate dropped from 29 percent to 22 percent while the city’s Black population decreased by almost 25 percent, she said.
“It’s a story about the legacy and evolution of systemic racism especially in finance and housing markets,” Langston said.
Legacy of exclusion
The country’s history of redlining, racial covenants in housing projects, predatory lending, soaring home prices and gentrification created a toxic stew of factors that continue to have profoundly negative impacts on communities of color.
The Equity Atlas report suggests several ways to address the problem, including policies to help tenants purchase the properties they rent, community land trusts and down-payment assistance and low-interest loan programs, among other things.
In Alameda County, where Powell lives, Black and Latino homeownership rates fell by 7 percentage points, according to the Equity Atlas.
If things go badly for him at his next court hearing in April, he could end up being yet another data point in this trend.
Powell believes systemic racism has played a part in his struggle to maintain ownership of his home.
“It was in the help that I didn’t get,” he said. “No one would talk to me about how to navigate the process, what to do next. To tell me, ‘Here is what the situation is and here is what you do.’”
“I didn’t get any of that, none of that,” Powell said.
A copy of the Bay Area Equity Atlas report on homeownership rates can be found on the organization’s website.