The Wilson Quarterly

It's unsurprising that homeownership rates for blacks and whites have converged since the Civil War. What is surprising is that nearly all of the convergence happened before 1910. The gap has narrowed by only one percentage point in the past century.

There have been two distinct periods during which African Americans increased their homeownership: the decades after the Civil War (1870–1910), when the rate increased by 16 percentage points, and the decades after the Depression (1940–80), when it shot upward by 37 percentage points. However, note economists William J. Collins of Vanderbilt University and Robert A. Margo of Boston University, during that latter period white homeownership increased by an equal amount, so the two rates did not converge.

The only real convergence occurred between 1870 and 1910. Black homeownership increased as freed slaves and their children bought small farms. At the same time, white homeownership fell, chiefly because many whites moved from farms to cities, where they were more likely to rent. About two-thirds of the convergence during the period can be explained by the gains of African Americans.

The black homeownership rate stagnated after 1910, partly because of the Great Migration to northern cities, where most blacks became renters. Both races lost ground during the Great Depression of the 1930s.

From 1940 to 1980, new governmental efforts such as the Federal Housing Administration helped boost homeownership. So did postwar prosperity. Whites increasingly owned homes in the suburbs, which often excluded black families; many African American families bought into the urban neighborhoods whites had fled.

In 2007, only 54 percent of African Americans owned their own homes. That rate is two percentage points lower than the white rate in 1870. In recent decades, white homeownership has averaged about 77 percent.

Because homes are a major form of wealth in the United States, more is at stake than simply who owns the roof over a person’s head. With income and educational inequalities persistent, there is little prospect for a quick reduction in the racial homeownership gap.

THE SOURCE: “Race and Home Ownership from the End of the Civil War to the Present” by William J. Collins and Robert A. Margo, in The American Economic Review, May 2011.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Chris Hunkeler

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