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55 Years Later—How long will it take?

55 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968. Many of us will never forget where we were when we heard the terrible news. I was in eighth grade, riding in a car on my way home from a youth event at my church – Lee-Seville Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio.

Following the successful passage of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act, Dr. King turned his attention to ending housing discrimination against Blacks. He moved his family to a decrepit rental apartment on the West Side of Chicago.  Working with the Chicago Freedom Movement during the summer of 1966, Dr. King and activists held rallies outside real estate offices and marched into all-white neighborhoods.

During a demonstration in the Marquette Park neighborhood on Chicago’s Southwest Side, Dr. King was hit in the head when an angry White mob hurled bricks, bottles, and rocks at the peaceful demonstrators. “Well, this is a terrible thing,” Dr. King said in an interview. “I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’m seeing in Chicago.”

Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley responded with an audit of poor housing conditions throughout the city considered a hazard to human life. He then committed to an agreement with Dr. King and other activists that led to the creation of the nation’s first fair housing organization. The Leadership Council for Metropolitan Open Communities worked for years to advocate for Black communities and expose discriminatory real estate companies.

Dr. King’s assassination, and the civil unrest across the country following his death, led on April 11 to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Title VIII of the Civil Right Act is also known as the Fair Housing Act. The Fair Housing Act expanded on previous laws and prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental, and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin, sex, (and as later amended) disabilities and family status.

While progress has been made in efforts to increase Black Homeownership, these efforts have been stymied by consistent and persistent discriminatory practices.  For example, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, the Black homeownership rate in Q1 1994 was 42.1%.  Ten years later, the Black homeownership rate rose to 49.7%, its highest point. It would be a pyrrhic achievement as the subprime crisis decimated Black homeownership throughout the country. Black first-time and existing homebuyers were given complex and risky mortgage products that quickly became unaffordable. They were disproportionately the victims of predators who steered them into toxic and predatory subprime loans that were impossible to sustain. Existing black homeowners were also aggressively steered into unsafe refinance products that stripped away their equity and ultimately added fuel to the foreclosure crisis.  According to the Center for Responsible Lending, over 240,000 African Americans (8% of Black homeowners) lost their homes to foreclosure between 2005 and 2008. More than twice as many Black homeowners likely lost their homes by 2016, according to NHC estimates using data from CoreLogic and the Center for Responsible Lending.

Black Homeownership declined to its lowest point in 2019 when it fell below 41%, lower than when the Fair Housing Act was enacted 41 years earlier. Today, the Black homeownership rate has begun to recover. By the end of 2022, it reached 44.9%. Yet, the gap between White and Black homeownership rates is even wider than it was in 1960, according to the US Census and the Urban Institute.

In response, housing leaders formed the Black Homeownership Collaborative, a coalition of over 100 stakeholders who are committed to sustainably create 3 million net new Black homeowners by 2030. Among the actions called for by the group are increased funding for housing counseling services, a targeted down payment assistance program, restoration of legal doctrines and provisions of law that address systemic discriminatory policies, and passage of the Neighborhood Homes Investment Act.

The Black Homeownership Collaborative is led by a steering committee of executives from the Mortgage Bankers Association, NAACP, National Association of REALTORS®, National Association of Real Estate Brokers, National Fair Housing Alliance, National Housing Conference, National Urban League, and the Urban Institute.

The Black Homeownership Collaborative will recognize its second anniversary on May 31 in Memphis, Tennessee.  Our program will include a bus tour of Memphis housing development sites, a report on progress made to date, and two panels highlighting the affordable housing accomplishments in Memphis and the federal policy initiatives needed to improve Black Homeownership nationwide.

The night before he died, Dr. King delivered his final sermon at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple in Memphis. Known as “The Mountaintop” speech, Dr. King spoke of his vision of the future, while doubting that he would see it himself. It gave a poetic and expansive view of the world and centuries of history where people have fought to be free. He spoke of the need for unity, and singleness of purpose; of a relentless pursuit of the ultimate objective – true equality, not just the end of abuse. He spoke of supporting and expanding Black-owned businesses, banks, and insurance companies.

Dr. King spoke of his vision for the future, declaring that he had “been to the mountaintop,” but he was also very clear that the future he saw there needed to take place here on earth. “It’s alright to talk about ‘streets flowing with milk and honey,’ but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can’t eat three square meals a day. It’s alright to talk about the new Jerusalem, but one day, God’s preacher must talk about the new New York, the new Atlanta, the new Philadelphia, the new Los Angeles, the new Memphis, Tennessee. This is what we have to do.”

So next month, we will be back in Memphis, to take stock of our work, and plan for what’s next. We have a lot of work to do, more than Dr. King would have hoped, but we know what he would say. “This is what we have to do.”


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