By Andrea Custis
In recent days, many white Pennsylvanians have been forced to confront difficult questions about the state of America and the Commonwealth for Black and Brown families, communities, and businesses.
Important questions have been raised: Why are our country’s institutions inherently racist? Why do the police treat white “reopen the country” protesters differently than Black protesters? Why has our government failed to enact common-sense policies that help narrow the racial wealth gap?
Multiple systems work against Black and Brown communities in Pennsylvania, from underfunded school systems to police departments that disproportionately target Black and Brown men. We have not made nearly enough progress for Black and Brown communities to fully achieve the “American Dream.”
Oppressive systems will not change overnight, and we should not expect them to do so. However, there are ways that our elected leaders can work right now to protect Black and Brown communities against adverse circumstances like police brutality or loss of generational wealth.
At the Urban League of Philadelphia, we work daily to promote homeownership and help first-time homeowners to succeed in both the short- and long-term. Owning a home means economic independence, and homeownership can empower and lift individuals and families out of poverty.
I worry, however, that many of the gains we have made in minority homeownership will be wiped away as a result of COVID-19, as has happened during past recessions. In the late-2000s, the Great Recession wiped away decades of housing gains among Black families.
Between 2007 and 2010, delinquency surged across all groups, reaching a peak in January 2010 of 9.8 percent and 8.0 percent for Blacks and Hispanics, respectively, and 4.0 percent and 2.8 percent for Asians and Whites, respectively. Homeownership gains were reversed suddenly for minorities before, and it can happen again.
Just look at Philadelphia.
In 2017, Philadelphia saw a higher number of renters than homeowners for the first time in history. Just 10 years prior, there were nearly 84,000 more owners than renters.
No racial group sees a greater disparity in owning versus renting than Black Philadelphians. 2018 Census data shows a gap of more than 7 percent, with only 37.7 percent owning a home as opposed to 44.9 percent renting. For context, 48.2 percent of white residents own their homes, compared to only 38.9 who rent. There are nearly 34,000 fewer Black homeowners in Philadelphia than white homeowners.
These numbers tell only part of the story.
Philadelphia is the poorest large city in America; nearly 26 percent of city residents live in poverty. For so many in Philadelphia, saving a down payment is complicated by student debt, child care, and other costs.
History tells us this: a tidal wave of evictions is coming, soon after the moratorium on evictions and foreclosures ends on July 10. We know that this will disproportionately affect Black and Brown communities in Pennsylvania.
Here is the question we must answer immediately: What can be done to lessen the impact?
One option is to extend the moratorium for another 60 days. Beyond that, Pennsylvania should consider following Philadelphia’s lead and pass legislation to protect renters and homeowners in the longer-term. Philadelphia’s legislative package includes a bill by Councilperson Helen Gym that creates an eviction diversion program that runs through December 31, 2020, and requires both landlords and renters to participate in a mediation process to help resolve issues before a formal eviction.
Although our government cannot instantly change longstanding systemic injustices that date back to Reconstruction, we can and must take steps to alleviate them today.
Andrea Custis is President and CEO of The Urban League of Philadelphia. Her work appears frequently on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page.