Maura Collins: Systemic racism in the housing sector

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Maura Collins, who is the executive director of the Vermont Housing Finance Agency.

On July 16, the Vermont Housing Finance Agency joined the Racial Justice Alliance, the mayor of Burlington, and over 30 corporations and organizations from the region in declaring racism as a public health emergency.

VHFA is a partner in this effort because not only do the statistics in the city’s declaration deeply disturb us, but as a housing finance entity we must acknowledge the long and deep role that our industry has played in making racism systematic.

Only 4% of Burlington’s Black households own their home, and that dismal rate is barring too many from the largest source of wealth for middle class Americans, which is home equity. Paying a fixed amount over decades can make not only one’s housing affordable but the stability in cost can free up money for other things such as health care, child care, higher education, and more. After years of paying that stable, affordable cost of a home, wealth accumulates as households slowly gain equity both by paying down what they owe and as their home grows in value. 

That system and source of wealth is what Black and brown households were denied almost since the system began. Throughout the U.S., including here in this region, there was a building boom after World War II, during which Black and brown households were largely excluded from homeownership opportunities through racist practices like redlining. That was followed by several decades of home price appreciation that we will likely never replicate. 

And it is that wealth — that home equity — that white households like mine tapped into to send children like me to college. It is what was used to move up to nicer and bigger homes near more opportunities. It was shared with their grown children as they looked to buy a home, and ultimately it is passed on as an inheritance for future generations. The access to wealth through housing is unmatched and that wealth leads to better health, longer lives, and better educational and job prospects. For many Black and brown families, there is no way to make up for that time lost and all the wealth created over those years. 

But the reason for hope comes from action. We have seen action before sparked by the killing of black men. The Fair Housing Act, part of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, was signed a week after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. And it was that act that finally made overt housing discrimination illegal.

And yet, the problems continue, not just here but widely ... systematically. In Vermont, the homeownership rate for Black households today is just 21%, lower than it was when the Fair Housing Act was signed. That’s right: lower. 

I thank the mayor and the City Council for working with the Racial Justice Alliance and inviting us all to action. A spark was ignited by George Floyd’s death and we all watched that spark become a torch that marched in the streets to demand justice. But torches burn out and arms grow weary from the weight. We now need those torches to light the hearths in our homes, our businesses, and our hearts so that we remain as committed to this work a decade from now as we are today.

We cannot relent. There is too much to make up for and the stakes are too high. 

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