Facing Racism: Homeownership rates lowest among Black households in La Crosse County and city of La Crosse

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT)– Black households have the lowest homeownership rates in both the city of La Crosse and La Crosse County, according to a 2019 study. Recent protests have brought renewed scrutiny to inequities that Black people face, including barriers to buying a home.

Local leaders continue to consider ways to improve homeownership rates, especially for Black residents. But it’s not going to be easy to turn that around.

To understand the journey for one local couple to buy a home, you have to start at the beginning. Their love story started in La Crosse.

“We met in middle school,” said Javon Whitesell, who now lives on French Island.

Their relationship has continued from high school through college–leading up to their big day.

“In March,” said Javon and his wife Katie Whitesell, in unison.

For some time, Javon wanted to buy a house, but Katie wasn’t so sure.

“But we weren’t really looking. We kind of told ourselves we were going to wait a year before we did,” said Javon.

Things don’t always go as planned. Katie, who works for Castle Realty, was scrolling through the listings one day when a house on French Island popped up.

“We had a first showing that night, and then went back the next day for a second showing and then we wrote an offer,” said Katie Whitesell.

Initally, it wasn’t accepted. They’re both young and have a limited credit history. And, they said there were other offers.

“We were kind of expecting to not get it, but it was kind of like that heartbreak,” Katie Whitesell said.

But when someone else’s bid fell through, Katie said she wrote a letter about what the home would mean to them. She must have said just the right thing, because they closed on the house.

“It just happened so fast for us,” Javon Whitesell said.

But not all are so lucky.

“What the study found was there are definitely racial inequities,” said Caroline Gregerson, community development administrator for the city.

City officials worked with partners in La Crosse and Monroe Counties to create a 176 page fair housing study, 277 with appendicies. Using information from the U.S. Census Bureau, known as Comprehensive Housing Affordability Strategy (CHAS) data, they found in La Crosse, the homeownership rate for white households was 52.2%. But that number greatly differed compared to Black households.

“Less than 5 % of Black households that live in La Crosse own a home,” Gregerson said.

Homeownership Rates

From the Regional Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice study.

The study states that no Black households own their home in the city. But Gregerson said that is because of how the data was collected. They still believe the number is so small, it was not captured in the snapshot.

For Javon, it’s not surprising.

“Honestly, no. Not really,” Javon Whitesell said.

He grew up on La Crosse’s northside.

“Growing up it was common for most of my friends or people who looked like me to grow up in apartments. And that’s just kind of the norm,” Javon Whitesell said.

There might be a few reasons why.

“Historically in the U.S., Black and brown families have been locked out of homeownership,” said Hettie Brown, executive director for Couleecap.

Brown said redlining, minorities being unable to access programs designed to help, and banks not being set up in predominantly Black communities have all led to this point.

“This is history that we see today when we look at these wide disparities,” Brown said.

You see it in the numbers. The study looked at information from 8,439 compled home purchase loan applications from 2013 to 2017 for La Crosse and Monroe Counties. The largest number of applications came from low-income applicants.

Denial Reasons

From the Regional Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice study. Applications that were withdrawn or closed due to incompleteness such that no decision was made regarding approval or denial are not included in the figures.

“When you looked at low-income households trying to buy– black households were denied a loan at a higher rate than low-income white households,” Gregerson said.

The two biggest reasons were credit history and debt to income ratio, which is true across races and ethnicities. However, the rates were higher especially for Black applicants. Part of this may be due to how little info is available— the study only had 11 Black applicant information to analyze.

Denial Reasons

From the Regional Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice study. A reason was provided in about 80% of home purchase loan denials.

“Many diverse families have an income where actually they could afford a mortgage but they may have student loan debt or other loans that they’re paying off that prevent them from getting into a mortgage,” said Brown.

The organization helped with the study and Brown said they offered to follow through on the recommendations.

“Couleecap offers a number of programs to help people achieve homeownership,” Brown said.

They have a program that helps potential homebuyers with direct financial support for downpayment and closing costs. She says based on the history, other inequities and trends, part of the problem is a lack of wealth.

“The way that you get people into homeownership is by offering that direct assistance,” Brown said.

The nonprofit also provides homebuyer counseling for people planning to buy a home.The study recommended using funds for these exact kind of offerings and then have the city and county work with local organizations to advertise these programs to communities of color.

Potential Solutions

From the Regional Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing Choice study.

That education piece was critical for Javon and Katie.

“Even going into this, even though I work with real estate, there’s still a lot of things I didn’t know being a first-time homeowner,” Katie Whitesell said.

And it also recommended meeting with local lenders to discuss goals for furthering fair housing when it comes to homeownership. But it’s going to have to take more than that.

“To correct those issues, it’s not going to be one program or one service. It’s really about government, social service organizations and the community coming together to have a broader conversation about how racism manifests in the programs and what we can do to overcome it,” Brown said.

Because owning a home can build economic stability and wealth over time.

“I’d like to see more people that look like me own their own homes and own property and be able to establish a nice place outside of an apartment building,” Javon Whitesell said.

It quickly pays off.

“Our mortgage is barely more than what we were paying for rent so it was definitely worth doing,” Javon Whitesell said.

It’s exactly the reason why the couple wanted a place to call home.

“Buying a house was a really big accomplishment I feel like for us as a family and I’m really proud of where we’re at,” Javon Whitesell said.

This is part of a series of reports looking at system racism and issues of racial justice in our community. You can find those investigations here.