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State tries methods to boost minority homeownership

SALEM — Lawmakers are trying to figure out what's keeping Oregonians of color from buying homes when loans and subsidies are available.

Overall, about 62 percent of Oregonians own homes, and overall the rate of home ownership in the state is slightly lower than in 2000. But state data show stark differences among ethnic groups. In Oregon, about 65 percent of whites and 63 percent of Asian Americans own homes as of 2017. Meanwhile, only about 35 percent of black Oregonians do. The lowest rate of homeownership in the state is among Pacific Islanders, at 26 percent.

Earlier this year, state lawmakers created a task force to figure how to improve homeownership rates. In a meeting Monday, members discussed one possible piece of the puzzle: lending.

Some witnesses told lawmakers that buyers aren't always aware of the extra help they can get to close a home purchase — or what they need to be eligible for that help. Oregon already has a number of programs in place to help people borrow for a home, but some observers say that not enough people know about those opportunities.

Joseph Portillo, a home loan officer at Umpqua Bank, told lawmakers and other members of the task force that he feels educating Oregonians about what they need to know about credit and other qualifiers for home loans, as well as existing assistance programs, could boost home ownership rates among people of color.

"Sometimes I feel like individuals come and apply for a mortgage, they are about to play basketball, and they are coming in knowing the rules for playing football," Portillo told the committee during the Oct. 22 meeting. "It's a totally different game that they're trying to play, so they're not going to be able to win the game or participate in the game because they don't know the rules."

Lending environment

State Rep. Mark Meek, D-Clackamas, a real estate broker who co-chairs the task force, said financial incentives don't always align to encourage the real estate industry to help people of modest means get a home loan. Real estate agents may make less money per transaction with the more time they spend on a particular buyer. "I know that if I have to spend six weeks, or even six months helping somebody find a home, my price per square foot is going down, and my dollar per hour is going way down," Meek said.

He said that the hurdles and time it takes a buyer to qualify and the time it can take loan officers or lending institutions to implement and support housing assistance programs is "just another way to discriminate and eliminate and dissuade folks being able to participate in this process."

Rep. Rich Vial, R-Scholls, said a lack of affordable housing may be the real problem while educating buyers is important. "If folks can't make the payments on something, you don't want to put them into a house they can't make the payments on," Vial said. "These programs that we have are great, but until we get enough supply that would allow those programs to really be used, is there a solution that is around understanding the lending environment better?"

State Sen. James Manning Jr., D-Eugene, who leads the task force with Meek, said it was too early to pinpoint the impediments. "Inventory is scarce, it is low, but I also would like to say, that we're in the early portions of this task force, and it's too early for me, from my perspective, to make any kind of determination whether or not there are disparities in housing," Manning said.

He learned about some home ownership programs at the Oct. 22 hearing.

Meek said he wants to see what may be impeding access to home loans. "If there's so many programs available, why aren't we utilizing them in a more efficient manner?" he said.

Historic discrimination

Meanwhile, other advocates say the task force should consider how historic discrimination has affected home ownership in the state.

Oregon's exclusion law banned blacks from settling in the state, and until 1943 the state prohibited Asian Americans from owning real estate, according to the Fair Housing Council. Discrimination against people of color manifested in other ways, including through exclusionary zoning and the practice of "redlining," or denying loans to people who lived in lower-income neighborhoods.

That history has compounded the significant disadvantages for people of color, who were largely unable to build wealth through property ownership over the course of generations in the way that many white people could, some task force members said.

"I would strongly caution too much focus on the consumer education piece and focus on the systemic pieces of how we got here," said Se-Ah-Dom Edmo, a member of the task force and the sovereignty program director at the Western States Center, a Portland group that organizes nationally for progressive causes.

The group continues its discussion of mortgage loans and barriers at its Nov. 28 meeting.

Contact reporter Claire Withycombe at cwithycombe@eomediagroup.com.

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP FILE PHOTO — A state legislative task force is trying to figure out ways to open homeownership to more minority families.