How Seattle’s Black Home Initiative Is Addressing Affordability and Inequity

 

Gregory Davis is deeply familiar with the rising cost of homeownership in the Seattle area. The managing strategist of Rainier Beach Action Coalition, a Black-led community development organization in south Seattle, Davis has watched housing prices soar out of reach for many longtime residents, including some of his own colleagues.

“Some of the young people we’ve hired, they aspire to homeownership. They want homes. They want equity and generational wealth,” he says. Many graduated from high school in or near the community of Rainier Beach, left for college, and returned to the city to begin their professional lives. But in the meantime, Davis explains, increased demand for homes in central Seattle has put pressure on housing prices at the city’s periphery. “We’re paying $65,000 salaries out of the gate, but what’s that going to get you in homeownership?”

The average home value in the Rainier Beach community—which is one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods, with 82 percent of residents identifying as Black, Asian, Latino, American Indian, or multiracial—was $674,000 at the end of 2023, an increase of almost $170,000 over five years, according to Zillow. That’s low relative to the entire Seattle region, where home values hover around $816,000—but it’s nearly double the national average.

Still, Davis says the young adults he works with, most of whom are Black, are optimistic. They know they might not be able to afford a stereotypical single-family home “with the white picket fence and the backyard,” as he puts it, but they’re certain homeownership is possible for them, too. “They know they need to look at things differently,” says Davis. “They’re not limiting themselves to a scarcity mindset.”

Davis’s organization is one of dozens of groups in the Seattle region that have joined together to find creative ways to address some of the barriers that make it especially difficult for Black residents to become homeowners. Called the Black Home Initiative (BHI), the collaborative aims to leverage the power of its network, make innovative policy changes, and utilize new funding in order to help 1,500 Black residents become homeowners by 2027.


Gregory Davis, managing strategist of the Rainier Beach Action Coalition and a leader of the Black Home Initiative, speaks at a local town hall event on building generational wealth in 2023. Credit: Rainier Beach Action Coalition.

The initiative is part of a national program, Connecting Capital and Community (3C), that’s operating in five major cities across the country. Launched in 2021 and run by the Center for Community Investment in partnership with JPMorgan Chase, 3C is an effort to develop and preserve affordable housing while also strengthening racial equity. “In our efforts to advance an inclusive economy, JPMorgan Chase is committed to addressing barriers to housing affordability and homeownership, especially for households of color, through our 3C work,” says Mercedeh Mortazavi, vice president of global philanthropy at JPMorgan Chase.

Each of the five 3C teams is developing strategies tailored to the specific climate and characteristics of the city where they’re based—Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, Seattle, or Washington, DC—in ways that are designed to be replicated by local governments, funders, and organizations. Like Davis’s young colleagues, the teams are examining their cities’ affordable housing shortages from a fresh perspective, with the hope of coming up with new, more inclusive solutions.

It's Not Just About New Units

In the US, the vast majority of affordable housing created today is built using federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credits. The tax credit program is responsible for thousands of affordable units being produced annually, but it has some shortcomings. The units are all rentals, and therefore won’t build long-term wealth for their residents. And the developers and investors who build the projects often don’t live in the neighborhoods where they’re sited; as a result, the income they generate leaves the community.

One of 3C’s key goals is to do things differently. Can the teams find ways to build or preserve affordable homes that also boost racial equity for Black and Latino residents? And can they do it in a manner that affects not only their immediate developments but also the overall system, so that their efforts have a larger impact?

“It’s a real shift away from just counting units as indicators of progress,” says Robin Hacke, CCI’s founder and executive director. “They’re looking at to what extent they’re moving the needle on equity. That’s a big deal.” (Launched as a Lincoln Institute of Land Policy initiative in 2017, CCI became a sponsored project of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors in early 2024.)

Given each city’s unique history and context, the five teams’ plans are necessarily quite different. But in the three years since 3C began, they’ve followed a similar process, utilizing a tool called the Capital Absorption Framework.

Developed and championed by Hacke and CCI cofounder Marian Urquilla to help communities address local social and economic issues, the framework is built on three related functions: establishing shared priorities among a range of stakeholders; building up a stream of deals rather than just one-off projects; and strengthening the policies and procedures that can make that project pipeline more effective.


The Center for Community Investment's Capital Absorption Framework helps communities address local social and economic challenges by identifying shared goals, developing an investment pipeline, and strengthening pertinent policies and processes. Credit: CCI.

During 3C’s first full year, lead organizations in each city spent months gathering a wide range of players with interest or influence in increasing the affordable housing there: lenders, funders, representatives of public agencies, real estate developers, homebuyer education groups, and grassroots organizations representing residents. Together, the groups examined their city’s housing strengths and weak spots, gradually hammering out a set of shared priorities and a plan of action incorporating those findings. (For a detailed description of the early stages of this work, see Structural Change: 3C Initiative Promotes Housing Affordability and Racial Equity in Five US Cities).

“All five are now in a place where they’re trying to navigate how their strategies can lead to transformation in their communities,” explains Robert Harris, who directs the 3C program. “They’re really thinking, ‘Is this strategy transformative, will it have an impact, and can it be deeply rooted in the communities for 20 or 30 years?’”

Those are big asks, but the teams are moving forward. In Chicago, for example, the 3C collaborative is partnering with developers of color to construct new two- and four-unit buildings that will provide their owners with both homes and rental incomes. Early in the process, the group determined that these units should be affordable to people earning approximately 80 percent of the area median income; to meet that goal, it’s working with the developers and local funders to find ways to reduce some of the projects’ costs.

The Los Angeles team—which includes affordable housing developers and an architect—has already acquired two single family homes in South LA. Taking advantage of California’s new law allowing single-family zoned properties to include up to three additional residences, the team will build two more units on one of the properties. The other is currently zoned for commercial uses, and the plan is to tear down the existing home and develop six new units on that land. The team hopes to design a fractional ownership method that would allow multiple residents to own a property at a lower price.

In Seattle, the team has targeted a large geographic area and is aiming to help more than a thousand households. While its approach is original in many ways, many of the fundamental challenges it’s grappling with are common to the entire 3C program. Mortazavi of JPMorgan Chase describes the Black Home Initiative as an important cross-sector collaboration to increase affordable homeownership for low and moderate-income Black households in the Seattle metro and Puget Sound regions. “By tackling the problem from a demand and supply side while advancing policy changes,” she says, “BHI is advancing a meaningful strategy to drive systems change.”

Changing the Systems Underneath the Structures

“There is a desperate crisis here,” says Darryl Smith, executive director of HomeSight, a Seattle-area community development financial institution and member of the Black Home Initiative. Black families in the state have a homeownership rate that’s about half that of their white counterparts, he says, adding that over 40 percent have zero net worth. Smith identifies a critical challenge: “How do we change the systems that lie underneath the structures here?”

Smith and his organization have been core members of BHI since its early days. Shortly before their work became part of 3C, groups in the region had begun to examine why homeownership there varied so dramatically by race, and what could be done to address that disparity. Even then, it was clear that to have any impact at all, the effort would need to include a broad cross-section of groups focused on housing at a variety of levels.


Participants in the Black Home Initiative celebrate the launch of the cross-sector coalition in 2023. Credit: CCI.   

Their range of expertise made it easy to identify the roadblocks, which exist on both the supply and the demand sides. The upshot of that early effort was a seven-point plan outlining some of the region’s key problems—from a need for better outreach and pre-purchase housing counseling, to improved policies and more low-cost units—and potential ways to solve them. But until that loose Seattle coalition joined 3C, it was a framework without a concrete implementation plan.

After joining the program in 2021, the organizations began to solidify into a more cohesive network, with the local group Civic Commons as the lead organization and $4.45 million in seed funding from JPMorgan Chase allowing for staffing, infrastructure development, and some programming. The initiative’s core team continued to bring in new partners and began to formalize some of those early ideas.

Today, BHI includes around 90 organizations, including local and county governments, regional and national banks, realtor associations, and nonprofits. It covers a roughly 35-square-mile area south of downtown, straddling two counties and multiple jurisdictions. The area is large relative to the projects in 3C’s other four cities; BHI’s leaders want the initiative to include the region’s main Black communities, which are very dispersed.

The team has also taken a comprehensive approach to assessing the local enabling environment and how it needs to change if Black homeownership is to increase.

“We’ve always known that the way we’ll get there is through policy and systems change,” explains Michael Brown, Civic Commons’ chief architect. The work done on the seven-point plan, examining supply and demand issues, was a strong starting point, he says. The team has since taken those ideas much farther.

Rethinking Supply and Demand

To develop its strategy, the group delved into the nuances of supply and demand. The issue of “demand,” for example, involves questions about whether low- and moderate-income people who are interested in buying homes are actually ready to do so. Is their credit where it needs to be, do they have access to strong homebuyer counseling, is assistance with down payments or closing costs available? BHI identified all of these points as opportunities for action.

In response, the team is developing several targeted projects. One is a web-based portal that will serve as a one-stop shop for prospective homebuyers, allowing them to scan the availability of financial assistance, counseling, and other programs targeted to low-income homebuyers. Another is the Black Homeownership Legacy Fund, which provides capacity-building grants to BIPOC-led nonprofits focused on homeownership education and similar activities.

And BHI celebrated a big success in the spring of 2023 when the Washington State Legislature approved the Covenant Homeownership Act (CHA). Passed in response to the racial covenants that governed real estate transactions until the 1960s and made homeownership distinctly more difficult for Black Americans—and that are a major reason for their low homeownership rate today, both in Washington and nationwide—the CHA will provide down payment and closing cost assistance for many Black first-time homebuyers. Members of BHI had actively advocated for the policy, which will benefit residents statewide who are struggling to cover the up-front costs of homeownership.

“It was a great win,” said Brown of the passage of the CHA. “It’s a recognition of the power of history, and of a network.”


Homeownership rates by race and ethnicity across income categories in Washington state. Credit: Washington State Homeownership Disparities Work Group/Washington Department of Commerce; data source: US Census Bureau ACS 1-year, 2019. Note: Area Media Income varies across the state, based on the county of residence and household size.

On the supply side, the issue is whether enough affordable housing is currently on the market—and how developers and others can preserve the housing that exists and build more. It’s a question all five 3C teams are grappling with.

In Seattle, BHI’s leaders have determined that they can increase the number of affordable homes being built for sale while also supporting Black developers. Building homes requires a variety of loans that developers of color often struggle to get, for reasons ranging from a lack of deep-pocketed personal networks as a source of vital seed money to the discriminatory practices that persist among lenders.

Addressing that challenge, BHI developed Field Order 15, an initiative named for General Sherman’s command at the end of the Civil War to give formerly enslaved people 40-acre plots of land. This effort at reparations was rescinded by Andrew Johnson months after it was issued. The new Field Order 15 program is a reparative fund that will provide developers of color who are building for-sale homes with grants of up to $50,000 for early-stage feasibility work. Participants are then eligible to receive technical assistance and predevelopment loans through the fund at low interest rates.

“We have great Black developers here, but they’ve had to fight against real barriers,” said Smith at HomeSight, who was chiefly responsible for crafting the initiative and securing its early funding. He’s hoping those who come through the Field Order 15 program will be viewed as “vetted” by traditional lenders, and will have an easier time securing funding in the future.

BHI hopes to also help connect Field Order 15 developers with developable properties and potential opportunities. In particular, some team members are currently working with churches that may be open to using some of their land for affordable housing. Smith and others hope to eventually introduce those church leaders to the initiative’s developers, with new for-sale homes as the ultimate product.

The Gift

In addition to JPMorgan Chase’s investment, the Field Order 15 program has received a $1 million commitment from the Washington State Housing Finance Commission, and Amazon has committed $550,000. While many other philanthropists in the region have been focused on area’s intense homelessness crisis, but the initiative’s leaders believe its broad-based network and targeted objectives will gradually draw the attention of more financial supporters.

Even as the group’s leaders navigate the funding landscape, they are also contending with the challenge of wrangling a large, diverse coalition whose members share many key goals but not all, and who answer to various boards of directors.

“Having worked in the network space for many years prior to this, I can say that the hardest thing is clarifying the purpose and shared priority,” said Marty Kooistra, BHI’s project manager. “It’s about cultivating trust, and that’s hard to do.”

It was especially hard in the initiative’s early days, when meetings were still virtual. At the group’s first summit in 2021, over 100 people were present, all on Zoom. These days, the coalition frequently meets in smaller, more manageable workgroups. Still, really understanding what each member can offer and then persuading them to give their all to the larger effort is an ongoing challenge for Smith, Kooistra, and the initiative’s other leaders.

But as in Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, and Washington, DC, the Seattle leaders are certain the work is worth it. For decades, disparate groups have worked to move the needle on Black homeownership with limited success, Kooistra says. The goal now, as BHI’s website puts it, “is to shift our mindset away from working as bright but separate stars and towards working like a highly connected constellation.”

The funding and staffing associated with the 3C program are allowing BHI to develop a large, energetic network with enormous potential to tackle one of the area's most intractable problems. “We may never get another propitious time like this,” Kooistra added. “BHI is a gift. How will we leverage this gift?”  

 


Amanda Abrams is a freelance journalist based in Durham, North Carolina.

Lead image: Residential neighborhoods surround downtown Seattle. Credit: Mark Hatfield via iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Desenvolvimento Comunitário, Desenvolvimento Econômico, Habitação, financiamento habitacional, Inequidade

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