Story at a glance
- Historic and systemic racism in real estate has kept Black Americans from amassing generational wealth on the same scale as white Americans.
- A real estate company in D.C. is offering grants to Black residents hoping to become first-time homebuyers.
- The program offers direct cash assistance in the name of reparations.
Through her company, Lisa Wise, has helped fund dozens of projects through microgrants for “doers, makers and disruptors in the District.” Over the years, she’s helped buy hundreds of smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors for senior homes, put bicycle repair stations in southeast D.C. and even make hot sauce.
But her latest project may be her most ambitious yet, as she takes on the racial wealth gap by paying reparations to Black Americans through grants for first time homebuyers.
“The murder of George Floyd compelled Flock to study our privilege as a company,” said Wise, CEO of Flock DC, in a statement over email. “Presumably, our hard work and creativity anchored our success. But did it really? In part, yes. But there is a harder truth to reconcile. And to be candid - that reconciliation will be out of reach until we, as a society, write a future that begins to undo the wrongs of the past when it comes to Black and Brown Americans.”
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Flock is an umbrella brand, the "wing" as it were for three birds of a real estate feather: Nest DC, a boutique property management company, Roost DC, an employee-owned condo association management company, and Starling DC, a construction and maintenance company. This month, the company launched a new initiative, birdSEED, and opened applications to first-time homebuyers for grants to help cover down payments on homes in the D.C. metropolitan area. Black, Indigenous and other residents of color with a household income of less than $150,000 are eligible for anywhere between $5,000 and $15,000, contingent on mortgage approval and a handful of other requirements.
The application form also asks what support an applicant might need throughout the buying process, with the intention of helping connect them with resources available through community partners. For the most part, however, the grant comes with no strings attached, except being part of the program's public relations efforts to secure additional funding. The program has $215,000 in seed funding from Wise’s own savings and the company she founded after leaving the nonprofit sector.
“We’re not recreating the wheel. What we want to do is make direct cash assistance available to people who want to buy homes and limit the restrictions on that,” said Wise.
In the nation's capital — where income inequality is tied inextricably with racial inequality — only about half all Black households own their homes, compared to more than 70 percent of white households. Despite the inequality, this rate is actually one of the lowest in the country, but also doesn't take into account that home values for Black owners are lower on average than for white owners.
"This program comes at a time when our region, and our nation, is reckoning with its past and searching for solutions to address the history of discriminatory policies that Black and Brown folks have endured in our communities. We look forward to working with our community to grow the seed of this work to a scale that matches the disparities we see and the aspirations we share for a racially equitable and just region," said Tonia Wellons, president and CEO of the Greater Washington Community Foundation, which handles administrative duties for the foundation, in a statement on the birdSEED website.
One such discriminatory policy is redlining, a practice from the 1960s referring to the "red lines" drawn around neighborhoods with larger Black populations and denoted more likely to default on loans. The systemic racism at the root of redlining, however, has outlasted the policy itself. In addition to the generational wealth denied to Black Americans, institutions today, from banks to real estate platforms, are still denying them the right to equal housing and opportunity.
While she’s aware of the industry’s past and wary of partners that come with strings, Wise hopes to harness the power of real estate for good.
“I want to see many more zeroes tacked on to that $215,000,” said Wise. “Real estate is a naturally competitive industry and I want to take advantage of that to inspire some of my peers in the industry to contribute and to recognize that we’re benefiting from this racist past and we should not be comfortable with that.”
“I’m hoping this will inspire others to say it's really not that hard to share what you have with others,” she added.
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