Take away $45,000 in downpayment assistance from a city-run, state-funded program, and LaTasha Massey doesn’t own her $180,000 home on Whispering Meadow Drive in Iowa City.
Mortgage payments would have been too much without the 25 percent downpayment from the program, which forgives the assistance after five years if the recipient lives in the home during that entire time.
“It was huge,” Massey said about owning a home. “It had a lot of implications for our life.”
Since buying the home, Massey, a black woman in her 30s with a master’s degree in social work from the University of Iowa and a job as community projects specialist for Johnson County, has gotten engaged.
Homeownership is taken for granted as the default standard of living for many Iowans. But black and Latino homeownership rates have dropped since 1960, an analysis of census data shows.
Three of every 10 black Iowans owned a house in 2010, that data showed. Three of every six of the state’s Latinos owned one. Three of every four white Iowans owned a home in 2010.
Black Iowans’ homeownership rates have fallen dramatically since 1960, when 56 percent owned a home. The Latino homeownership rate in Iowa has dropped only 2 percentage points since 1960 but has fluctuated from a peak of 65 percent in 1970 to a low of 47 percent in 2000.
Meanwhile, white homeownership has gone up slightly from 69 percent in 1960 to the 74 percent recorded in 2010.
Minority homeownership rates have fluctuated far more in Iowa over the last 50 years than they have nationally. National percentages for blacks and Latinos generally stayed in the low to mid-40s for most of that time.
Poor financial situations, the lack of stable jobs and personal choices — but also the effects of discrimination in some cases — prevent many black and Latino Iowans from becoming homeowners, interviews the past four months for the special project, Iowa’s Opportunity Gap, revealed.
IowaWatch, a non-profit, nonpartisan news organization, led the project, examining racial achievement inequality in the state, in a collaboration with The Gazette in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, the Hawk Eye in Burlington, the Messenger in Fort Dodge and the West Liberty Index.
U.S. Census Bureau data from 1960-2010 revealing opportunity disparities among whites, blacks and Latinos were provided to IowaWatch by the Colorado-based public service journalism organization, I-News.
Massey, a graduate of Iowa City High, said owning a home gives her stability. She no longer has to worry about finding a new place to live every time her lease is up.
That means not having to endure, as she said she did, being told by potential landlords that they don’t take Section 8, or being asked how many children she has. She suspects the questions were based on presumptions about her because she is black.
Today, she and her fiance are building equity in her home. If something happens to her mother, she said, she knows she can bring her to the house.
Plus, she owns something new.
“The only dirt in this house is mine and the contractor’s,” she said.
Yet, there’s the stigma of living in southeast Iowa City, an area of town that in the past has had a reputation for crime. Census data also show the neighborhoods there have a higher percentage of minority residents than elsewhere in the city.
Massey still sometimes gets denied for pizza delivery.
High mobility and lack of permanent work are strong factors preventing Latino homeownership in Sioux City, said Major Von R. Vandiver, commanding officer of the Salvation Army of Siouxland.
“Work tends to be episodic,” Vandiver said. “When it’s summer time around here, they can do a lot of jobs. But when winter comes there are fewer labor jobs.”
The Eastern Iowa town of Columbus Junction, with 1,900 residents, is home to about 900 Latinos. But families come and go as they seek jobs at the Tyson Foods meat packing plant.
Yet some steadiness exists in town, too. Columbus Junction’s Latinos live at every level of homeownership — owners, renters and landlords, said Mallory Smith, the city’s community development center director.
A new immigration group is getting jobs at Tyson — Chin Burmese people. Smith said an estimated 400 Chin Burmese immigrants have moved into Columbus Junction the past few years.
Many of the Chin Burmese residents are refugees with no credit or banking history, so buying a home is difficult.
“There’s a little bit of lag on moving from renters to homeowners,” Smith said.
In nearby West Liberty, when the 2010 census was taken, two of every three of the town’s 1,921 Latino residents lived in a home that someone in the household had purchased.
Jose Duran, a 20-year resident of West Liberty who works at Tyson’s Columbus Junction plant, said he does not see Latinos who are qualified to buy a house encountering problems in town.
“Many times it depends on the person,” Duran said, “because if you don’t have good credit or if you have problems, you can’t buy a house.”
Duran added, “If everyone thought about this, it would be easier.”
Despite that, West Liberty City Council member Jose Zacarias said many immigrants don’t want to let go of the idea that they someday will return to their home country, making them less likely to buy a house in the United States.
“I say, no, there is nothing moving economically in your country,” Zacarias said. “The jobs are here, you’re already legalized, you are going to stay here, so the next good move you can do is to buy a house.
“Buying a house, you are now officially part of the community. You are invested in the community because your kid is now going to a school system here. And it’s in your best interest to follow, with you going to ESL (English-as-a-second-language courses) at night at one of those churches that offer free-of-charge courses.”
Responsibility comes with a decision as big as buying a house, and the language-barrier between Spanish-speaking buyers and English-speaking lenders can create problems.
Lena Avila Robison, president of Latinos Unidos of Iowa in Des Moines, said Latino homebuyers sometimes unwittingly enter deals that set them up for failure.
Some of the fault goes to the buyer, but plenty also can be attributed to sellers who take advantage of the situation, she said.
It happens, for example, when buying a house from an individual or company on contract, said Robison, a former Iowa Civil Rights Commission investigator who now heads the not-for-profit Latinos Unidos that provides support services.
“These contracts are set up on balloon payments,” Robison said. “A lot of individuals do not understand what balloon payments are, even if you’re an educated person, because I’ve been trapped in those before and I didn’t know it. But it’s because I didn’t educate myself.”
Robison said lending institutions that have hired bilingual officers have been helpful for Latinos buying a home.
Charles Clayton, executive director of Athletics for Education and Success in Fort Dodge, said narrowing the gap in homeownership is complicated. Traditions developed through the years that were based on race at one time have become today’s norms, even though overt racism has diminished, he suggested.
For example, white homeowners start thinking about selling and getting out before losing equity if a growing group of minorities move into their predominantly white neighborhood.
“To me, it’s racism disguised as poverty versus wealth,” Clayton said.
“It doesn’t have to be an overt thing. If someone moves out of their neighborhood because minorities move in because they know two of the other families may also be thinking the same thing — it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re racist.
“It might mean they’re smart business people. But racism drives it.”
The solution Clayton suggests is not much different from what is offered by others who say they want to narrow opportunity gaps for minorities in Iowa: The conversation must include race, he said.
“There is a way out,” Clayton said, “but you have to get people to sit down on all sides, not only the racial side but on the money side, the business side, the banking side of this, the education side, and first talk about race.
“Everybody wants to be colorblind now and not talk about race. We’re not going to get past this until we talk about it.”
— Lauren Mills of IowaWatch contributed to this report.
Iowa’s Opportunity Gap is a five-week series examining the disparity gap that shows up in U.S. Census data for Iowa from 1960 through 2010.