Dec 29


I’Jaz Ja’ciel’s reporting on Buffalo housing

Our urban affairs reporting included stories about stagnant growth in homeownership among Buffalo's Black residents.

While I’m proud of the work I did for Investigative Post in the early part of 2023, including my myth-busting story about lootings during the Christmas Blizzard of 2022 and the launch of ‘East Side Stories’, I feel that my most impactful work came at the end of the year, when I started looking into Black homeownership in Buffalo and Erie County.

Buffalo has a history of inequities in housing, from segregation to redlining. They have resulted in barriers to homeownership for the city’s Black residents. In fact, the number of African-Americans who own their homes in the city has been stagnant, barely inching about 33 percent since the 1980s.

Why does it matter? Buffalo’s homeownership disparities highlight larger issues in the city around the local real estate market, issues that are driving residents out of the city, as well as the rolesbanks and local governments play.

I produced the first of a series of stories in November that revealed white residents are twice as likely to own their own homes in Buffalo than their Black counterparts. On a county level, the divide is even greater – closer to one in three.

One recurring theme: a lack of consumer education. It’s not that programs and funds are unavailable for underrepresented communities, it’s that they aren’t advertised well. I first learned this through my conversation with Realtor Rosalind Burgin of Mootry, Murphy and Burgin. She’s also president of the Buffalo Niagara Realtors Association. Donivin Mclean of Keller Williams Realty and Keith Barnes of Barnes Real Estate Group had similar thoughts.

Burgin says it’s up to real estate agents to help inform their clients about programs and financial assistance. Barnes says it’s more up to the entities that run the programs to spread the word of their availability. For Mclean, it’s a mix of the two.

One interesting detail that got left on the cutting room floor: Buffalo apparently has no Black property appraisers, according to Burgin and other Realtors I interviewed.

Appraisal discrimination – the appraisal of a home at a lower value due to the owner’s race or ethnicity – has been a hot button issue in the national news over the past couple of years, and some Realtors and fair housing advocates told me it’s happening here in Buffalo, too. 

An overall lack of representation in the real estate industry has been to the detriment of both Black buyers and sellers, according to my sources. As I highlighted in my East Side Story follow-up, only 7.5 percent of America’s Realtors (including Burgin, Barnes and Mclean) are Black.

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Race aside, I learned there are other issues driving poor homeownership rates in Black communities. One of the biggest problems is that there just aren’t enough available homes on the market and rocketing interest rates make those that are unaffordable to many. 

Many properties in the city in recent years have been scooped up from under not only potential buyers, but from organizations designed to help residents find homes.

Housing specialists from the University District Community Development Association and Heart of the City Neighborhoods said they’ve been having issues administering the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency’s Downpayment and Closing Cost Assistance funds. Recipients of the grants are often unable to find safe properties within their price range. 

A statement that I feel perfectly summarizes the struggle came from Jennifer Carman, director of housing and community development for Heart of the City Neighborhoods:

“We’re being locked out of the homebuyer process, and one of the reasons we’re not able to keep up with those programs is — and I think a lot of nonprofits are seeing this too in the city — is because of the fact that investors are now scooping up properties.”

Many of these properties are in predominantly Black neighborhoods across the East Side. They attract investors because oftentimes they’re significantly cheaper than properties found in other parts of the city. This is another issue that Realtors say isn’t exclusive to Buffalo, but part of a national housing crisis.

One may wonder, if Buffalo homes are so affordable, why aren’t Buffalo residents buying them? As was first outlined in a 2017 housing strategy commissioned by the city, it’s never been that housing prices are too high. Rather, incomes are too low, especially for Black residents.

The 2020 Census shows that Black households in Buffalo earn about $20,000 less on average than their white counterparts, who have a median income of about $52,000. Countywide, the margin widens – $33,758 for Black households compared to $66,934 for white households.

That’s not to say there aren’t wealthy Black residents in Buffalo. However, both Census and federal loan data I analyzed suggest they aren’t staying in the city.

“Black home ownership is relatively flat, but those with the means are going to the suburbs,” said Buffalo State University associate professor Jason Knight, coordinator of the school’s Urban and Regional Planning program.

Bank data shows that over the past three years, more home loans have been given to Black buyers in Erie County suburbs than in the City of Buffalo. Census numbers show there has been growth in the inner ring suburbs of the Town of Tonawanda, Amherst and – most significantly – Cheektowaga.

The topic of Black homeownership has been a broad one for me to cover, and I realize two stories aren’t going to cut it. In coming weeks, expect deep dives into the outward migration of Black residents to the suburbs, the role banks are playing to help (and thwart) equity in the home-buying process, and the history of city programs that aimed to boost homeownership.

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