Black-headed households are less likely than white-headed ones to own their residences. The latest data from the Census Bureau put the homeownership rate at 75% for whites and 45% for blacks. According to the North Carolina Housing Finance Agency, our state’s racial disparity is roughly similar.
These are facts. What they mean, how they came to be, and what ought to be done in response are debatable questions.
For example, politicians and activists frequently assert that the homeownership disparity is caused by racial bias, explicit or implicit. Although I can understand how they came to this conclusion, I believe they are mistaken.
You can’t just eyeball the two homeownership rates, 75% and 45%, and attribute the 30-point difference to racial discrimination. In fairness, no serious person really argues that. Rather, the argument is that even after adjusting for household income, net worth, and other variables, a disparity remains — so it must be caused by discrimination.
Again, I think this argument is made in good faith. But that doesn’t make it a good argument.
It has two big flaws: one at the “front end” and the other at the “back end.” For starters, most studies of racial and ethnic disparities in mortgage lending and homeownership rates do not actually control for all the factors that equal-opportunity lenders might reasonably take into account. In particular, external analysts typically lack access to the credit records that lenders use. Two households may be otherwise comparable in income and net assets but one may pay its bills regularly and the other sporadically.
Aside from the lending process itself, there are other factors that help to explain differences in homeownership. One is marriage. Other things being equal, married couples are better able to weather financial storms. And even when one parent is caring for children or doing other non-paid work, that can still contribute to the household’s financial stability.
In a 2011 study published in Social Service Review, a team of UNC-Chapel Hill researchers found that low-income married couples were two to three times more likely to buy homes than otherwise comparable unmarried folks. “Efforts to encourage marriage among low-income couples may be associated with subsequent economic mobility through home ownership,” they concluded.
A couple of years ago, the Brookings Institution created a big stir with a study claiming racial bias in home appraisal. Observing that homes in majority-black neighborhoods were valued at half the prices of homes in neighborhoods with no black residents, they controlled for income and related factors. The disparity was smaller but still significant. The Brookings scholars attributed it to implicit bias — and observed, correctly, that such a bias in appraising would result in unequal access to homeownership.
Not so fast, said two American Enterprise Institute scholars. They took the same data and adjusted for two more factors: credit scores and the share of loans made to single buyers, a proxy for marriage rates. That shrank the racial disparity into statistical insignificance.
AEI has also done good work on default rates. As I’ve previously observed, the best evidence for or against racial bias in mortgage lending isn’t to be found at the front end of the process (borrowers applying for loans) but on the back end (whether borrowers pay them back).
If lenders make their decisions without prejudice, then default rates for white and black customers ought to be roughly the same. But biased lenders will award more loans to whites than to blacks with the same incomes, debts, credit scores, and financial history. Such lenders will then experience a lower average default rate for their black customers, for whom they’ve set higher (and unjustified) standards. AEI tested that proposition a couple of years ago, finding that risk-adjusted default rates on mortgage loans were either the same or higher for black borrowers than for white borrowers.
In other words, racial bias doesn’t explain the disparity. If we want to expand opportunities for homeownership, let’s focus on real causes and practical solutions.