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‘Redlining never really went away’: Black Rhode Islanders still face racism when buying a home

While 62 percent of all Rhode Islanders owned a home in 2019, only 34 percent of Black Rhode Islanders did, according to a newly published report by Brown University researchers.

Diana Garlington, who makes more than $70,000 working at one of the state's largest nonprofits, faced institutional racism when tying to purchase a home in Providence, Rhode Island.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

PROVIDENCE — The day after Thanksgiving in 2011, Diana Garlington got a call that would cause her world to crumble. Her daughter, Esscence, who had plans to one day become a lawyer, was stopped at a traffic light in Providence when a car came up beside her and opened fire. Esscence, 21, was killed. She was not the target and the gunman was never caught.

After years of living in the home where she had raised Essence, Garlington could no longer bear to stay there. She had inherited the house from her father when he died. She put it on the market.

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Within three months, Garlington found the ideal place: a three-bedroom, two-bathroom home in the Wanskuck neighborhood of Providence.

But the process to close on the home, which should have taken about 45 days, took more than nine months.

“It got to the point where I told my realtor that I never wanted to look for another house again,” Garlington said. The biggest hurdle was having to repeatedly prove to the underwriter how much money she made, despite having the paperwork that showed she could afford the mortgage payments on her salary of $70,000 a year.

A 2019 loan from a local university caused another snag: A credit report showed that she still owed $3,900. But she never took the class and says she never received the money from the loan.

“That should have never been on my credit report,” Garlington said. A letter to the underwriter, explaining the situation, should have been enough, she said, “But they [the underwriter] forced me to pay or else I’d lose the opportunity to get the house.”

She questions whether white homebuyers run into similar problems.

“This is what racial discrimination looks like when trying to buy a home in Rhode Island,” she said.

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Disparities in home ownership between Black people and people of all other races persist. In the US, more white, Asian, and Hispanic Americans have owned homes than Black Americans, according to a newly published report from researchers at Brown University called “The State of Black Rhode Island Homeownership.”

And the disparity is especially bad in Rhode Island. Overall home ownership in the Ocean State is about the same as in the US overall: 64 percent of all Americans owned a home in 2019, and 62 percent of all Rhode Islanders did.

The disparity becomes clear when the data is broken down by race. In the US, 73 percent of white Americans owned a home in 2019, compared to 42 percent of Black Americans. But in Rhode Island, 62 percent of all residents owned a home in 2019, compared to just 34 percent of Black Rhode Islanders, according to Dr. Akilah Dulin, a behavioral and social sciences professor and lead researcher on the report, which was paid for by the United Way of Rhode Island.

In 2019, there were 25,024 Black households in Rhode Island. Of these households, 8,571 were owner occupied and 16,453 were renter occupied, said Dulin.

“My desire to look into Black Rhode Island started when I was thinking about moving here myself. When I started researching what it was like to be Black in Rhode Island, I found that it was an undesirable place to be,” said Dulin, who moved to Rhode Island in 2012 from Alabama.

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The housing crisis in Rhode Island, particularly among Black residents, is reaching a tipping point. Skyrocketing rents are pricing hundreds of Rhode Islanders out of their homes — more than 300 people slept outside or in their cars on any given night in February alone, according the Rhode Island Coalition to End Homelessness. The real estate market is so hot that fewer first-time homebuyers are able to compete. The median price of a single-family home in Rhode Island is $370,000, and the median price of a multi-family home is $399,900, according to the Rhode Island Association of Realtors.

Advocates say home ownership, which could build generational wealth, is the long-term answer to ending the housing crisis, but due to federal, state, and local policies, Black Americans have had limited opportunities to own homes. Historical barriers persist, according to Dulin.

“Education is a piece of this. And it’s important. But education without resources and without removing systemic barriers is not going to have the kind of tangible impact we need that will be sustainable,” Dulin said.

In the report, she recommends increasing access to small-dollar mortgage assistance (about $10,000 to $70,000) for single-family properties for Black homeowners. She said a mortgage assistance program, when paired with a homebuyer education program, could reduce the Black-white homeownership gap by at least 12 percent.

These programs, for prospective Black homeowners, “are a way close the gap and help in our current housing crisis.”

From left, Kobi Dennis, Chief Operating Officer at YMCA of Greater Providence, Brown University student Janelle Barnett, Brown University graduate student Salma Mohamed, and Brown University professor Dr. Akilah Dulin pose for a photo on the Michael Van Leesten Memorial Bridge in Providence, Rhode Island. They worked on report on the status of Black homeownership in Rhode Island.Matthew Healey for The Boston Globe

The historical barriers to home ownership for Black Rhode Islanders have their roots in the 1930s, when red lines were drawn on maps to indicate “hazardous neighborhoods” in Providence, the researchers found. Lenders were less likely to approve mortgages or offer favorable rates in these areas, which were predominantly Black.

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Advocates pressed for fair housing practices, and after 30 years, the Rhode Island Fair Housing Practices Act was passed in April 1965, which allowed people to file housing claims on the basis of discrimination.

But it didn’t stop redlining.

“Black people are more likely to be denied home loans, offered subprime loans or loans with higher interest rates despite their creditworthiness,” read the report. This, in turn, can adversely affect a person’s credit.

Kobi Dennis, the chief operating officer at YMCA of Greater Providence, said the most staggering part of the data for him showed that Black people have a lower credit score compared to their white counterparts. “That’s proven in this report. There’s no more debate,” he said. “So what are we going to do about it?”

In 2014, the City of Providence sued Santander Bank for redlining, alleging the bank increased its mortgage lending in predominantly white neighborhoods by 25 percent and decreased its lending to people of color by 63 percent. While the lawsuit was dropped, the bank paid $1.3 million to Providence Community Library, AS220 (an arts and culture organization in downtown), and the Rhode Island Local Initiatives Support Corp., which was a new grant program that helped pay mortgage down-payment and closing costs for “low- and moderate-income Providence residents.”

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“None of that money went to help boost Black homeownership specifically, which was why they were getting sued in the first place,” Dennis said.

Five years later, the Rhode Island Commission for Human Rights received 330 reports of violation of the Fair Housing Practices Act, and nearly a quarter of discrimination claims were related to race.

Dulin explained that even with the same application profile as white people, Black Americans who applied for mortgages were 50 percent to 120 percent more likely to be denied loans than white mortgage applicants. She said Black people are typically shown fewer homes by real estate agents, are steered toward minority neighborhoods, and are given less help during their search.

In 2020, 1,288 Black and 16,037 white Rhode Islanders submitted mortgage loan applications for a home purchase. But 10 percent of Black applicants were denied while 6 percent of white applicants were denied.

“This goes so far beyond financial literacy,” Dulin said. “It’s like redlining never really went away.”

Percentage of Rhode Island mortgage loan applicant denials from 2010 to 2020 for Black and white Rhode Islanders, as reported in The State of Black Rhode Island Homeownership Report.The State of Black Rhode Island Homeownership Report

The pandemic, she said, has only exacerbated the issue. Dulin found that nearly 20 percent of Black homeowners reported they were behind on mortgage payments, and few of them knew about the mortgage forbearance options made available during the pandemic.

Daynah Williams is the director of homeownership services and asset building at NeighborWorks Blackstone Valley in Woonsocket, which offers homebuyers classes and personalized budget assessments with financial advisers for free.

“There are certain people in the community that are not included in anything regarding education,” she told the Globe. “They’re being told ‘Buy a house. Get your credit together.’ That’s all great, but how do you sustain it? We’re that sounding board.”

As a Black woman, however, Williams said being able to purchase a home isn’t just about financial literacy. “In other jobs, I definitely saw how my own earning power was not equal to my white counterparts, for the same job and for the same skillset.”

“When you are someone of color and you finally get to that point, after living in survival mode, it’s emotional,” she said.

“There’s a lot of times where a lot of us folks aren’t allowed in certain areas. We’re being steered and we don’t realize that’s even happening,” she said. “Practices from the 1800s and redlining from the 1930s are still affecting us in this state today.”

Back in the Wanskuck section of Providence, Garlington ended up closing on her home in mid-February. But she now has to hire a lawyer and try to get the money back that she paid toward a loan she never received for a class she never attended just to get approved for the house she was purchasing with her daughter in the first place.

She quipped, “In what world is that fair?”


Alexa Gagosz can be reached at alexa.gagosz@globe.com. Follow her @alexagagosz and on Instagram @AlexaGagosz.