An American dream, deferred

By Michelle Chen May 14, 2009

Homeownership has long been touted as the cornerstone of the American dream and a tool for narrowing the racial wealth gap. Has the foreclosure crisis extinguished that hope, or exposed the myths that drive it? The Pew Hispanic Center has examined the trajectory of the housing market and uncovered distinct impacts on people of color:

"Homeownership among Hispanics increased more quickly and for a longer time than homeownership overall. The Latino homeownership rate peaked at 49.8% in 2006, compared with 42.1% in 1995. It was unchanged in 2007 and fell to 48.9% in 2008. "Black householders raised their homeownership rate from 41.9% in 1995 to 49.4% in 2004. By 2008, the black homeownership rate had decreased to 47.5%. "Immigrant householders are less likely to be homeowners than those who are native-born, but their losses in recent years were relatively modest. Homeownership among immigrant householders increased from 46.5% in 1995 to 53.3% in 2006 and then fell to 52.9% in 2008…. "…blacks and native-born Hispanics are among those who experienced the sharpest reversal in homeownership in recent years."

So Black and Latino homeownership rose higher in the mortgage bubble, but in the end, vast gaps in ownership remain, with just about everyone taking a hit, some harder than others. The weight of debt also has specific racial impacts. Pew noted that “blacks and Latinos remain far more likely than whites to borrow in the subprime market where loans are usually higher-priced,” and that “in 2007, blacks and Hispanics borrowed higher amounts than did whites with similar incomes, exposing themselves to greater debt relative to their incomes.” Previous studies on lending in communities of color expose the failure of regulatory policy to protect economically vulnerable households against high-cost loans. But Pew’s dismal findings do contain a curious upshot. Immigrant homeowners haven’t fared as poorly. For immigrants in general, the decline in homeownership between 2006 and 2008 was relatively small. And among foreign-born Latinos, homeownership peaked at about 45 percent in 2007 and held steady through 2008. That doesn’t mean the foreclosure epidemic isn’t hurting immigrant households. The recession has pummeled immigrant laborers, renters and other groups left out of this study. And if the trends continue, racial wealth gaps could deepen dramatically. But researchers suggested that changing immigrant demographics could be offsetting some of the volatility, since “the typical immigrant in 2008 had spent more years in the United States and was more likely to be a U.S. citizen than was the typical immigrant in 1995.” Another insight, perhaps, into how targeted reforms to stabilize and legalize immigrant households could be a boon to the entire economy. Shaping policies to prevent another crisis demands a closer look at who sinks or swims in the current mess: we’re seeing both the stubbornness of inequity as well as pockets of unexpected resilience.