Closing the homeowner gap

Black sorority's initiative aims to boost numbers, educate about dangers of predators

February 04, 2007|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun reporter

In the halls and ballroom of Morgan State University's student center, more than a dozen mortgage lenders pressed applications and business cards into the hands of prospective homebuyers, promoting no-money-down loans and various financial incentives.

In meeting rooms nearby, counselors warned the same prospective homeowners about the perils of predatory lenders, the importance of fiscal discipline and cautioned that some people may not be ready for the American dream.

These are complementary - not mixed - messages, say organizers of the Delta Sigma Theta Homeownership Initiative, which brought several hundred first-time house-hunters to the historically black college yesterday to meet lenders and be schooled in fiscal literacy.

"We don't steer people to lenders," said Lynn Richardson, national coordinator of the black sorority's initiative to promote home ownership among African-Americans. "But historically, African-Americans have not been as aware of the economic opportunities available to them, so education is key."

Yesterday's event was the first of six "homebuyer expos" in the Baltimore-Washington area planned by the sorority.

Since its inception in 2003, Delta Sigma Theta's homeowner initiative has led to more than 500 loans worth $80 million, said Richardson. The goal for this year is to facilitate an additional $100 million in home loans to first-time buyers, she said.

The initiative is underwritten by Chase Home Finance and Genworth Financial, a mortgage insurance provider. The companies receive "preferred lender" status in the initiative's marketing literature and are also major contributors to the sorority's foundation, said Richardson, a vice president at Chase in Chicago.

Less than 50 percent of blacks nationally are homeowners, compared with more than 70 percent of whites, organizers said, but recent trends suggest the gap is closing. According to Genworth, mortgage loans to minorities rose 25 percent in 2005, while dropping slightly for whites.

Among those looking to take the plunge yesterday were Mark Lawson, 40, and Romaine Young, 50, who share an apartment in Parkville.

After 10 years together, the two -he's a truck driver; she's a manager at the state Department of Human Resources - are planning to get married. They hope to buy a single-family home on the Eastern Shore for less than $300,000.

"I've been hearing it's a buyer's market now," said Young, "So we thought it's time."

Lawson called the expo a "blessing," because it allowed them to solicit mortgage offers from several companies at once while also learning about government grant programs that could help with closing costs.

Nicole Bowens, a 2006 Morgan graduate, said she planned to jump right into homeownership without first becoming a renter. The 24-year-old accountant lives with her mother in Northeast Baltimore but wants to a buy a small townhouse for about $170,000 by the end of the year.

"The way I see it, the cost of renting is almost equal to the cost of a mortgage," Bowens said. Other than being aware of her credit score, she acknowledged knowing "pretty much nothing" about buying a house, and hurried off to find a session titled "The Homebuying Process from A to Z."

Also on hand was Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., who bought his first home in Bellona-Gittings in 1989, the same year he graduated from Morgan.

"This is important," Harris said of the event. "It helps the African-American community, but also the whole city because homeownership creates more property tax revenue and helps keep neighborhoods stable."

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