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This story is published in partnership with Youthcast Media Group and high school students at at Philadelphia’s Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School.
For years, Harry Christian III and Tony Keith Jr. lived in a cramped rental apartment, where they trekked up three flights of stairs to reach their front door, endured hot summers without air conditioning and converted a spare bedroom into a closet to create extra storage space. So buying their own home with a backyard for their dog, rooms across three floors and space to entertain was life-changing for the Washington DC, couple.
They used a mini-grant from the nonprofit birdSEED to help purchase their Marshall Heights home, a prospect that may not have been possible without the grant.
“This is a space where we’re able to entertain, have our family over, have guests over,” Christian said. “We don’t have to be on top of each other like we were in the apartment.”
After launching in DC in late 2020, birdSEED expanded its reach to Philadelphia, where the organization awarded its first round of provisional grants in October. With affordable housing becoming increasingly out of reach, small grants like those birdSEED provides offer one solution toward closing the racial wealth gap through home ownership in the mid-Atlantic and beyond.
In Philadelphia, rates of homeownership continue to widen between Black and white communities, a condition experts say is caused by a combination of a lack of education and financial literacy, structural racism and racial gaps in wealth and income. About 47% of Black residents living in Philadelphia owned a home as of December 2019, while 59% of white residents owned their homes, according to statistics compiled by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia.
Part of this divide stems from lending practices. Black mortgage applicants were denied 84% times more than white applicants, often due to credit history, a report by Zillow found. Higher mortgage rates paired with lower incomes and less generational wealth—or financial assets passed down from family members—can make it difficult for some Black families to qualify for mortgages and come up with home down payments.
“What we haven’t done a very good job [at] is acknowledging that for many years, there were certain groups of people—specifically Black people we’re talking about—who … were not accumulating the wealth that others were allowed to accumulate,” said Darlene Booth-Bell, an associate professor of accounting at Coastal Carolina University.
Meanwhile, historical discriminatory housing policies such as redlining—a government practice that mapped out minority neighborhoods and deemed them too risky to include in homeownership and lending programs—compounds the challenges Black homebuyers face, as it becomes more difficult for those affected by redlining to build credit and equity.
Keith traced the roots of these practices and the challenges Black homebuyers face to slavery.
“We think about the history of race in this country. And we think about the fact that enslaved Africans [were] property … And you think about, why is it that so many Black people are poor?” Keith said. “Historically, we weren’t given anything; we were treated as products.”
The lack of education on the homebuying process presents another challenge for some Black families, Christian said.
“We’re not privy to some things,” he said. “Our parents didn’t teach us; you’ve got to learn on your own. But there are other groups of people who instill this in their children, or who at least include their children on that ride, on that journey so they’ll know how to move forward.”
Reparative justice, because ‘the history is embarrassing’
Founded in DC as a subsidiary of the real estate company Flock, birdSEED provides first-time homebuyers who are Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) no-strings-attached grants of $5,000 to $15,000 for house down payments. The all-volunteer foundation was created in an effort to mend the historical exclusion of BIPOC groups from buying homes.
Applications are currently being accepted for people able to close on a home within 120 days of getting the money; the current round closes March 31.
“It’s about reparative justice. And the history is embarrassing, it’s wrong,” said birdSEED Executive Director Leslie Case. “We want to work to make things better. And I think anybody working in this space of trying to reduce the racial wealth gap is trying to right those wrongs of the past.”
Applicants must identify as American Indian, indigenous, Alaska Native, Asian, Pacific Islander, Black, African American, Hispanic or Latino; have a household income of $150,000 or less; be buying their first home and complete a simple application to be considered for a grant. A review board interviews final candidates and selects recipients from the pool, and applicants who are not selected are encouraged to reapply in the next cycle. Christian, who was born and raised in Philadelphia, now sits on the board that awards grants in his hometown.
During its first round of grants in Philadelphia, more than 90 residents applied for funding. The group has awarded 21 provisional grants in DC, plus four in Philadelphia.
“It’s beneficial for everyone for programs that help address this issue,” Case said. “That’s something that gets lost in the conversation and thinking people are taking away something from one group to give to another. And that’s not the case.”
After receiving a birdSEED grant, Christian and Keith were able purchase a 2,500-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bathroom townhouse in Southeast DC for about $465,000.
“The cool thing is Harry and I went to the table and I think we had to write a check for maybe $200,” Keith said. “That’s justice.”
Previously, the couple had been renting a walk-up apartment that was difficult to access for Keith’s aging grandmother. That changed in 2022 when they hosted a Thanksgiving gathering for the first time in their new home, and Keith’s grandmother was able to attend.
“This is a space where we’re able to entertain, have our family over,” Christian said.
To be sure, birdSEED’s work on its own will not solve the homeownership gap, and there are other programs helping to bridge economic disparities. In addition to providing grants, birdSEED has also partnered with the Dream Builders Learning Academy to teach applicants who interviewed for grants in Philadelphia and DC about the home-buying process. And Philadelphia’s “Philly First Home” initiative provides first-time buyers with a $10,000 grant to help residents with down payments or closing costs. With a maximum income requirement that varies based on household size and a homeownership counseling component, Philly First Home is geared towards those disproportionately impacted by the homeownership gap.
Beyond homeownership, an initiative aimed at addressing the income gap through guaranteed income was also preparing to launch in Philadelphia. The pilot program would draw upon existing Pennsylvania Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds to give as many as 60 people $500 per month.
As of mid-January, the program had not yet started, according to a spokesman for Philadelphia’s Office of Community Empowerment.
“These aren’t programs that solve these ginormous world issues,” Keith said. “These are tools of support to help create equity… What they are doing is in alignment with where we go when it comes to racial justice.”
Keith and Christian’s home could help them build both generational wealth and family memories. They envision their home as a Sunday hangout spot for multiple generations of “Keistians,” and one they could eventually pass on to their children.
“When you think about what home buying is and like being able to have some kind of property that you own yourself and be able to pass that down from generation to generation to generation… that’s very rewarding,” Christian said. “That’s one thing I always think about—being able to call this my own and, you know, raise a family here.”
This story has been updated to note the homeownership stats from the Philadelphia Fed were measured in 2019.
Billy Penn is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on economic mobility. Read more at brokeinphilly.org or follow at @brokeinphilly.