April is Fair Housing Month, the perfect time to examine some of the more sobering realities of housing in America.
As Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, incidents of housing discrimination still abound. The homeownership divide between blacks and whites is strikingly wide. And housing has become less and less affordable in most major metropolitan areas.
The reported incidents of housing discrimination increased significantly -- 8.6 percent -- from 2003 to 2004, according to the National Fair Housing Alliance. The number of cases reported to state, federal and nonprofit agencies climbed from 25,148 in 2003 to 27,319 in 2004. But last year, the number of incidents dropped slightly, with 26,092 reported complaints in 2005.
In late March, the National Urban League's report, "The State of Black America 2006," found that 50 percent of African-Americans own their homes compared to 70 percent of whites.
A major reason for this disparity is racial segregation, says Lance Freeman, assistant professor of Urban Planning at Columbia University. Many middle-class and home-owning blacks live in neighborhoods that are overwhelmingly black, where poverty rates are higher and where amenities and services are lower than for middle-class, home-owning whites, Freeman says.
This, he says, reduces the chances of blacks to build equity with their properties, and it impedes wealth creation.
Because many African-Americans homebuyers are turned away when trying to borrow from conventional lenders, they are often susceptible to predatory lenders. These high rates make it difficult for many African-Americans to meet their mortgage payments.
Predatory lending is rampant in minority communities. African-Americans and Hispanics are disproportionately represented in the sub-prime home-finance market, which means they are paying several more percentage points in interest than what their white counterparts pay.
As a nation, we lose more than an estimated $9 billion per year because of predatory loans, according to the Center for Responsible Lending. State and municipal legislatures all across the country are passing laws and ordinances to try to address this serious housing issue.
Likewise, the issue of affordable housing is in need of immediate attention and reform. As gentrification continues to skyrocket in many major metropolitan areas, the costs of rental properties are increasing and homeownership is becoming more and more out of reach for many Americans.
On average, it costs more than three times the federal minimum wage -- or $15.78 per hour -- to pay for a two-bedroom apartment in America, according to the National Low Income Housing Coalition.
And even in families that rent and have two full-time minimum wage earners, 81 percent of them live in counties where a two-bedroom apartment at the Fair Market Rent is unaffordable, according to the housing coalition.
The dream of homeownership is part of the American dream. Let's not allow it to fall to ruins.
Brian Gilmore is adjunct professor of the Fair Housing Clinic at Howard University School of Law in Washington, D.C. He is also a lawyer and poet, and can be reached at email@example.com.