Owning a home has obvious benefits: You can renovate, repaint, have loud friends over, and always have available to you in-building laundry.
Other benefits are less obvious, however. Owning a home is a long-term economic boost that can help generations of a family, according to some. It can make your health better and reduce stress.
But far more people are not experiencing those benefits than are closer to home. A report from the Bronx borough president’s office says that just 19 percent of Bronxites are homeowners — the lowest percentage of all five boroughs. Between 2009 and 2016, the Bronx experienced an 8 percent drop in homeownership.
The report outlines the benefits homeowners have over renters — paying a mortgage is simply a better investment than paying the same amount of money for rent, and the tax subsidies for homeowners are more helpful than the ones available for renters.
“To put it simply, while renting provides shelter, homeownership also provides the accumulation of assets and wealth,” the report says.
While homeownership rates are complicated, one program started as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal has a long history of shutting out immigrants and people of color.
In the mid-1930s, the Home Owners’ Loan Corp., was created as a mechanism to stabilize housing during and after the Great Depression. In essence, it provided mortgages to struggling homeowners.
Between 1935 and 1940, the Home Owners’ Loan sent representatives around the country to assess the value of neighborhoods, using categories such as “low risk,” “moderate” or high risk, said Adam Arenson, director of urban studies at Manhattan College. That’s where the infamous legacy of the government-sponsored loan company comes into play.
While practical factors like what buildings were made of and if the land was subject to flooding were considered, another set of parameters had the capacity to push neighborhoods into the “high-risk” category: the skin color of its existing residents.
“It often came down to if they were seen as prosperous,” Arenson said. “Which was often code for what was the racial and ethnic makeup of those communities, and what kinds of jobs did those people have.”
Home Owners’ Loan’s maps — newly digitized in a project by the Digital Scholarship Lab at the University of Richmond — showed neighborhoods in shades of green, blue, yellow and red. Those colors represented grades and the “risk” of giving out loans in the neighborhood. Blue and green areas were seen as safe for loans, yellow areas were much less so, and red neighborhoods stood a very low chance of getting these home loans.
Riverdale, Fieldston and Spuyten Duyvil were all shaded in green and blue. Kingsbridge and much of the south Bronx, on the other hand, were labeled in red and yellow. North Riverdale is described as a “fine location overlooking the Hudson,” with the recently built Henry Hudson Parkway providing easy access by car.
“The major portion of this neighborhood is presently held up by wealthy people, many of whom have large estates overlooking the Hudson,” the report says.
Those large estates were somewhat unique to the Bronx, said Nick Dembowski, president of the Kingsbridge Historical Society. “Most apartment buildings in Riverdale are post-war buildings, built to accommodate baby boomers.”
Fieldston is a particular standout in the northwest Bronx: The area was rated highly by Home Owners’ Loan as the neighborhood already was very wealthy, and the only privately owned neighborhood in the city. It continues that legacy today, with homes selling in the millions. Fieldston’s very existence may have boosted the ratings of the surrounding area.
Kingsbridge and Kingsbridge Heights are shaded in yellow, and the assessment notes that 30 percent of families are foreign-born, mostly from Russia. “Altogether, this is a rather mediocre neighborhood, poorly located and unattractive,” according to Home Owners’ Loan’s report.
A 1937 assessment of an area covering Woodlawn and Wakefield lists “negro infiltration” as a detrimental influence, alongside the presence of German and Italian immigrants. The area is shaded red.
Homeownership rates in Riverdale and Fieldston were just over 29 percent in 2017, according to the Furman Center at New York University. Nearly that same amount of renters was described as “severely rent-burdened,” meaning they spent at least half their income on rent. In Kingsbridge Heights and Bedford, homeownership hovered at around 7 percent, with just over 37 percent severely rent-burdened.
“Ta-Nehisi Coates and Keeanaga-Yamahtta Taylor have pointed out how the legacies of discrimination in homeownership for communities of color means that the accelerator to wealth and stability has not been available to people of color the same way it has been to white Americans,” Arenson said.
Being able to live affordably in Kingsbridge while riding the subway to jobs in the city is a key part of the identity of the neighborhood, he said, whereas people living in Riverdale and Spuyten Duyvil are more likely to drive or take the Metro-North.
“You can even see sort of that segregation of how people get to work, where they work,” Arenson said, “and that also reflects the questions of what kind of jobs they have, how much they make, what kinds of opportunities they have.”
Diaz’s report lays out recommendations for increasing homeownership, including making zoning changes where necessary while ensuring that demolished private, single-family homes are replaced with condominiums or co-operatives, which still provide ownership potential. He also wants to expand homeownership development programs that would keep owners in their homes for longer, preventing those hoes from being sold to developers.
Arenson doesn’t know what the solution is on homeownership issues in the borough, but notes the Bronx has seen innovation before.
One of the first co-ops in the city, the Amalgamated Housing Cooperative, was developed by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America with the goal of providing affordable housing to working class people.
“It represents a kind of early alternative, where people are living in high density, but they are owning, and they’re owning in kind of a collective way that was made possible by their labor union,” Arenson said.
“But, like, in some ways, there was innovation. The Bronx was a space where people did think about these opportunities.”