For the first time in her 70 years, Jo Ann Austin owns her own home. It’s a one-story brick home with a white porch in Louisville’s Russell neighborhood; part of a new development called Cedar Street.
Late last month, dozens of people including Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and Councilwoman Barbara Sexton Smith gathered outside Austin’s new home for a welcome ceremony.
The Cedar Street development is a partnership between nonprofit Community Ventures, Louisville Metro Government, Neighborworks and J.P. Morgan Chase. It’s made up of new homes, many brick. Some doors are have ornate glass designs on them, and other homes have porches, decorative columns and gated fences in front of them. The street’s smooth pavement is lined by new sidewalks and planted trees on both sides.
For Austin, her new home was the achievement of a life-long goal.
“Owning a home – buying a home is the American dream,” Austin said. “Even though it took me 70 years to do it.”
And across the city, local organizations are working to make that ‘American dream’ possible for others, and hoping the benefits extend to poverty-stricken neighborhoods, too.
Kevin Dunlap is the executive director of Rebound – an initiative of the Louisville Urban League to develop homes in West Louisville. He said one of the benefits of homeownership for individuals includes building wealth for the homeowner and future generations, and many people own a home for a long time without realizing they’ve built equity there.
“That equity can be used to do other things. You can pull equity out of your home to launch a business. You can send your children to school,” Dunlap said. “For most families, not only African-Americans, purchasing a home is probably the largest acquisition that anyone is going to make.”
Overall, the rate of homeownership in Louisville is growing. According to a report by the city’s Metropolitan Housing Coalition, the percentage of homeowners grew from 61 percent in 2011 to 67 percent by 2016. But that growth has left some behind: black and Hispanic people owned homes at nearly half the rates white people did, and the percentage of black and Hispanic homeowners decreased by a percentage point from 2014 to 2016.
Dunlap said the 2007 housing crisis is to blame.
“The numbers of foreclosures and people losing their jobs dramatically impacted African- Americans more than anybody else in this community,” Dunlap said. “So they have been the last people to rebound from that in terms of getting back into homeownership.”
Those homeowner disparities have hurt impoverished people and communities, according to researcher Mark Lindblad of the Center for Responsible Lending, a nonprofit fighting predatory money lending.
Lindblad said redlining — the government-sanctioned practice of restricting home loans for people of color to certain areas — and other bad lending practices disproportionately hurt communities of color. That has resulted in more foreclosures and vacant homes in some neighborhoods. When homeownership is done right, Lindblad said the sense of stability can boost a person’s health, strengthen the surrounding community and reduce crime.
“That [residential stability factor] is a driver of improving the neighborhood. Because ultimately, homeowners want to sell their house at profit, so they don’t want to see their neighborhood decline,” Lindblad said. “So we find in this research that that greater residential stability is the factor that’s associated with higher civic engagement and greater local voting, higher social capital and local ties.”
Dunlap and the Louisville Urban League are trying to bring those community benefits to areas of concentrated poverty, including some neighborhoods in West Louisville, by increasing homeownership. Rebound works on one end by teaching people how to buy and take care of homes, and on the other by building more homes in West Louisville.
But it’s an uphill battle. Dunlap said the group needs more funding, and there’s so much demand that the Louisville Urban League’s classes fill up and they must turn people away.
Still, he doesn’t want people to give up on trying to become homeowners. In Russell, new homeowner Jo Ann Austin doesn’t either.
“I want people to be encouraged that they could do it also, that it’s obtainable,” Austin said. She’s excited to plant roses in her new yard and to make a difference in the neighborhood.
That’s what the project’s supporters are counting on, too.