wealth inequality

One Victory in Building Equity for Black U.S. Families—Millions More to Go

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In order for Black people to build wealth, white people need to be comfortable redistributing some of theirs. A success story out of Eugene, Ore., shows how homeownership can begin to remedy income and wealth gaps for Black families.

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Lyellye Reynolds-Parker is a Eugene native known for her contributions to the community in her work as a civil rights advocate. (Courtesy of Register Guard)

In February of 2021, while researching a project for work, I needed to gather information from elders of color. As a biracial, Black person, I naturally reached out to folks that I had known for years. Ms. Lyllye is one of those people.

Although we both grew up in the same midsize town with minimal diversity, mine and Ms. Lyllye’s paths didn’t cross until I was in college. Ms. Lyllye was born and raised in Eugene, Ore., just like me. Her family is one of four founding Black families in town.

When Ms. Lyllye was a young girl, the Lane County Board of Commissioners voted to raze the community where her family lived. All of the buildings were destroyed and Ms. Lyllye’s family was forced to relocate into an area that was undeveloped land in a flood plain. Ms. Lyllye’s parents built a church (that is still standing) and raised seven children in this town, and in a state that was originally founded to exclude Black Americans. Her family’s story of relocation and exclusion from generational wealth-building is one that is familiar to many Black elders across the country.

Ms. Lyllye spent 17 years as an academic advisor for the University of Oregon. She helped countless students of color to navigate a mostly white community. She helped students through being homesick, through mental health emergencies, through homelessness and more. She always provided a safe place to land and a hug. She made us all feel special and helped us to know that someone had our backs. Her impact has been so widespread that the university named the Black Cultural Center after her.

When I learned back in February that she dreamed of owning her own home and that the only thing in the way was a down payment, I was upset that someone who poured so much of herself into the community AND who worked for a public agency wasn’t able to realize the dream of home ownership. Isn’t that supposed to be how this works—we work at a job that pays a living wage and we buy a home?

Unfortunately, that narrative is one that has never held true for Black Americans. In the U.S., Black people’s income is 58 percent of the income of white people and their wealth is 10 percent of white people’s wealth. Additionally, in the state of Oregon, white homeownership is twice the rate of Black homeownership.

In the state of Oregon, white homeownership is twice the rate of Black homeownership. … Someone who poured so much of herself into the community AND who worked for a public agency wasn’t able to realize the dream of home ownership. Isn’t that supposed to be how this works—we work at a job that pays a living wage and we buy a home?

I can’t change those sobering stats on my own—that is the role of government. But I knew that I could at least help Ms. Lyllye. I reached out and asked her for permission to raise the funds. Once she said yes, I enlisted a close friend, Emily, to help. We’ve raised funds before—large amounts. We knew that we could do this together.

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The Flower and Vase Fall Fundraiser helped Lyellye Reynolds-Parker realize her dream of home ownership. (Emily Yates)

Our goal went from $25,000 to $50,000 to $75,000. The community was showing up with their love and their dollars. The community was paying back a fraction of what Ms. Lyllye gave us all, and continues to give. The housing market here in Eugene, like many places in the country, is tight. There aren’t a lot of homes for sale and prices are high.

Even so, Ms. Lyllye found the perfect home for her and her older sister.

It was important to me that we help Ms. Lyllye to realize her dream of home ownership for two reasons: I love her like family, and the income and wealth gaps for Black families across the country are wide and homeownership is one way to counter that.

While I felt the importance of this goal from a personal level, I turned to Emily because I know that she is a white person who wants to do racial justice work right. There are two things that she deeply values in this work: direct giving without questions to Black community members and helping people build assets.

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Mo Young (left) and Emily Yates. (Courtesy)

As white people continue to build community awareness of racial injustice, both present day and historic, redistribution of assets is a major part in the quest towards equity. In order for Black people to build wealth, white people need to be comfortable redistributing some of theirs.

As white people continue to build community awareness of racial injustice, both present day and historic, redistribution of assets is a major part in the quest towards equity.

While it is amazing that the community came together to help Ms. Lyllye realize her dream of home ownership, there are millions of Black Americans just like her who deserve the same thing. Stories like hers should be the standard, not the exception. To make that a reality, we need government policies such as increased mortgage options and subsidizing down payments for those impacted by historically discriminatory housing policies.

Our rampant inequity in who is and isn’t able to build wealth through homeownership in this country did not happen by accident, and it will take an intentional and long-term plan of action to finally create equal access to this crucial component of the American Dream.

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