Sub-Prime as a Black Catastrophe

No other recent economic crisis better illustrates the saying "when America catches a cold, African Americans get pneumonia" than the sub-prime mortgage meltdown. African Americans, along with other minorities and low-income populations, have been the targets of the sub-prime mortgage system. Blacks received a disproportionate share of these loans, leading to a "stripping" of their hard-won home-equity gains of the recent past and the near future. To fully understand how this has happened, we need to place this in the context of the continuing racial-wealth gap, the importance of home equity in the wealth portfolios of African Americans, and its intersection with the new financial markets of which sub-prime is but one manifestation.

Family financial assets play a key role in poverty reduction, social mobility, and securing middle-class status. Income helps families get along, but assets help them get and stay ahead. Those without the head start of family assets have a much steeper climb out of poverty. This generation of African Americans is the first one afforded the legal, educational, and job opportunities to accumulate financial assets essential to launching social mobility and sustaining well-being throughout the life course.

Despite legal gains in civil rights, however, asset inequality in America has actually been growing rapidly during the last 20 years. The assets that current generations own are heavily dependent on the legacies of their families of origin. Today's blacks still suffer from the fact that their parents and grandparents grew up in a rigidly segregated America, where opportunities to accumulate human and financial capital were strictly limited. So housing wealth is a disproportionate share of total black wealth.

Despite some income gains, African Americans own only 7 cents for every dollar of net worth that white Americans own; for Hispanics the figure is only slightly higher at 9 cents for every dollar. Even when middle-class accomplishments like income, job, and education are comparable, the racial-wealth gap is stuck stubbornly at about a quarter on the dollar.


Prior to the sub-prime meltdown, the advances of African Americans in accumulating wealth depended heavily upon housing wealth. Home equity is the most important reservoir of wealth for average American families and disproportionately so for African Americans. For black households, home equity accounts for 63 percent of total average net worth. In sharp contrast, home equity represents only 38.5 percent of average white net worth. According to the Economic Policy Institute's State of Working America 2008/2009, black homeownership rates dropped a full percentage point between 2005 and 2007 -- the largest decrease for any racial or ethnic group.

Even though homeownership rates for African Americans are lower, and even though a "segregation tax" is in play because homes appreciate far more slowly in minority or even integrated neighborhoods, housing wealth is still a more prominent engine of wealth for African American families. Given this centrality of homeownership as a source of wealth accumulation for black families, and the racialized dynamics of housing markets, sub-prime has been a special disaster for black upward mobility.

Families use home equity to finance retirement, start small businesses, pay for college educations, and tide themselves over during hard times. Information from the Federal Reserve Flow of Funds on home equity cashed out during refinancing (loans refinanced above 105 percent of the balance on the original loan) tells a dramatic story. Refinancing resulting in cash pullouts skyrocketed from $15 billion in 1995 to $327 billion in 2006. This is housing wealth converted, potentially, into other investments, used to launch social mobility, pay down credit-card and store debt, or finance consumption.

Especially in minority and immigrant communities, home equity often is the collateral for small business start-ups. But, it appears that about half of this enormous recent cash pullout was not used for retirement or to invest in mobility but to pay down past debt. While the conversion of housing wealth into cash and then the infusion of it into the economy provided a boost to the economy, in reality it disguised a less-rosy economic picture. Often it was the only way for families to keep pace with rising essential costs and burgeoning debt.

Between 2003 and 2007, the amount of housing wealth extracted more than doubled from the previous period, as families pulled out $1.19 trillion -- an incredible sum that allowed families to adjust to shrinking purchasing power and that significantly boosted gross national product. So, while homeownership reached historic highs, families today actually own a lesser share of their homes than at any previous time, because they have borrowed against their housing wealth.

Families typically spend more as house values increase and they can borrow against their equity. Then, as prices fall and credit is tightened, they spend less. For a time, up until the sub-prime meltdown, equity withdrawals acted as an engine of growth on the economy. The opposite is true now -- the sharp drop in housing prices has become a drag on the economy. Real home equity fell 6.5 percent to $9.6 trillion in 2007. The 2008 State of the Nations Housing study reports that the switch from housing appreciation to depreciation, plus the 2007 slowdown in home equity withdrawals, trimmed about one-half of a percentage point from real consumer spending and more than one-third of a percentage point from total economic growth. Worse is still to come.


Changes in the mortgage market, of which the current sub-prime meltdown is the most visible part of a larger pattern, were not racially neutral. Sub-prime loans were targeted at the African American community. With the recognition that average American families were accumulating trillions of dollars in housing wealth, "financial innovation" soon followed. New financial instruments, which relaxed (and sometimes ignored) rules and regulations, became the market's answer to broadening homeownership.

But the industry-promoted picture of sub-prime as an instrument of home-ownership opportunity for moderate income buyers is highly misleading. First, homeownership rates reached their historic highs before the zenith of sub-prime lending; and, second, increased access to credit brought homeownership opportunities within the reach of groups that had historically been denied access to credit. The issue became the terms of credit.

In hindsight, many critics now describe the sub-prime crisis as the consequence of bad loans to unqualified borrowers. In fact, the issue needs to be reframed to focus on the onerous terms of these loans. Data from the longest natural experiment in the field -- the Community Advantage Program, a partnership of Self-Help, Fannie Mae, and the Ford Foundation, where tens of thousand of loans were made beginning over a decade ago -- show that home loans to apparently riskier populations, like lower-income, minority, and single-headed households, do not default at significantly higher rates than conventional loans to middle-class families do, as long as they are not the handiwork of predators.

The difference is that loans such as ones made through the Community Advantage Program had terms that were closer to conventional mortgages as opposed to the risky terms that have characterized sub-prime mortgages. The latter had high hidden costs, exploding adjustable rates, and prepayment penalties to preclude refinancing. When lower-income families have similar terms of credit as conventional buyers, and they are linked with a community-based social and organizational infrastructure that helps them become ready for home-ownership, they pay similar interest rates and default at similar rates.


Minority communities received a disproportionate share of sub-prime mortgages. As a result, they are suffering a disproportionate burden of the harm and losses. According to a De¯mos report, Beyond the Mortgage Meltdown (June 2008), in addition to being the target of mortgage companies specializing in sub-prime lending, minorities were steered away from safer, conventional loans by brokers who received incentives for jacking up the interest rate. Worst of all, African Americans who qualified for conventional mortgages were steered to riskier, and more profitable, sub-prime loans.

Households of color were more than three times as likely as white households to end up with riskier loans with features like exploding adjustable rates, deceptive teaser rates, and balloon payments. Good credit scores often made no difference, as profit incentives trumped sound policy. The line from redlining to sub-prime is direct, as is the culpability. Even many upper-income African Americans were steered into sub-prime mortgages.

The Center for Responsible Lending (and other groups) projects that 2.2 million borrowers who bought homes between 1998 and 2006 will lose their houses and up to $164 billion of wealth in the process. African American and Latino homeowners are twice as likely to suffer sub-prime-related home foreclosures as white homeowners are. Foreclosures are projected to affect one in 10 African American borrowers. In contrast, only about one in 25 white mortgage holders will be affected. African Americans and Latinos are not only more likely to have been caught in the sub-prime loan trap; they are also far more dependent, as a rule, on their homes as financial resources.

The De¯mos report finds that home equity, at its current total value of $20 trillion, represents the biggest source of wealth for most Americans, and, as we have noted, it is even more important for African Americans. The comparatively little bit of wealth accumulation in the African American community is concentrated largely in housing wealth.

One recent estimate places the total loss of wealth among African American households at between $72 billion and $93 billion for sub-prime loans taken out during the past eight years.

Forty years after the Fair Housing Act of 1968, housing markets are still segmented by class and race, what realtors politely call location, location, location. Homes appreciate most in value when they are situated in predominantly white communities, and they appreciate least in value when situated in low-income minority or integrated communities, except when those communities undergo gentrification (and often become predominantly white).

This perverse market logic is also reflected in the sub-prime crisis. Sub-prime loans and foreclosures are not randomly distributed but spatially concentrated in low-to-moderate income communities, especially minority communities. Thus, the wealth-stripping phenomenon, of which sub-prime lending schemes are the latest financial innovation to tap new sources of wealth, is even more devastating in African American and minority communities. In turn, foreclosures and the terms of credit in African American neighborhoods bring down home values in the entire community. The community impact adds an institutional level to the personal tragedies and downstream consequences.

This devastating impact is not confined to just those who have suffered foreclosures; there is a spillover effect in addition to the direct hit of 1.27 million foreclosures. An additional 40.6 million neighboring homes will experience devaluation because of sub-prime foreclosures that take place in their community.

The Center for Responsible Lending estimates that the total decline in house values and the tax base from nearby foreclosures will be $202 billion. The direct hit on housing wealth for homeowners living near foreclosed properties will cause property values to decrease by $5,000 on average.

It is not possible to analyze specifically the full spillover impact of sub-prime foreclosures on African Americans, largely because these data are not available yet. However, communities of color will be especially harmed, since these communities receive a disproportionate share of sub-prime home loans. We estimate that this lost home value translates into a decrease in the tax base, consumer expenditures, investment opportunities, and money circulating in communities of color. United for a Fair Economy estimates that borrowers or color have collectively lost between $164 billion and $213 billion in housing wealth as a result of sub-prime loans taken during the past eight years.

Whatever the exact figures, the bottom line is clear -- after centuries of being denied any opportunity to accumulate wealth, after a few decades of having limited opportunities, and after a generation during which African American families accumulated significant wealth, the African American community now faces the greatest loss of financial wealth in its history. Institutional processes and racialized policy are trumping hard-earned educational, job, and income advances.



Basic studies on the black-white gap in income and employment:

Holzer, Harry J. (2001). "Racial Differences in Labor Market Outcomes Among Men," National Research Council. In America Becoming: Racial Trends and Their Consequences , Volume II, edited by Neil J. Smelser, William Julius Wilson, and Faith Mitchell. Commission on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, pp. 98-123.

Juhn, Chinhui, Kevin M. Murphy, and Brooks Pierce. (1991). "Accounting for the Slowdown in the Black-White Convergence," in Workers and Their Wages: Changing Patterns in the U.S., edited by Marvin Kosters. Washington, D.C.: The AEI Press, pp. 107-43.

Studies identifying poor schooling and family background as the main cause of the income and jobs gap:

Mitra, Aparna. (2000). "Cognitive Skills and Black-White Wages in the United States Labor Market," Journal of Socio-Economics, 29: 389-401.

O'Neill, Donal, Olive Sweetman, and Dirk Van de Gaer. (2006). "The Impact of Cognitive Skills on the Distribution of the Black-White Wage Gap," Labour Economics, 13(3): 343-356.

Studies pointing to persistent racial discrimination:

Rodgers, William M. III. (2006). "Male White-Black Wage Gaps, 1979-1994: A Distributional Analysis," Southern Economic Journal, 72(4): 773-793.

Rodgers, William M. III and William E. Spriggs. (2002). "Accounting for the Racial Gap in AFQT Scores: Comment on Nan L. Maxwell 'The Effect on Black-White Wage Differences of Differences in the Quantity and Quality of Education,'" Industrial and Labor Relations Review, 55(3): 533-541.

Rodgers, William M. III and William E. Spriggs. (1996). "What Does the AFQT Really Measure: Race, Wages, Schooling and the AFQT Score?" Review of Black Political Economy, 24 (Spring): 13-46.