Home Ownership and the Racial Wealth Gap

For many low-income Americans, owning a home is a reliable path to wealth accumulation. In terms of wealth inequality, though, how far does home ownership go toward closing the gap between minority households and white households?

An award-winning paper co-authored by Ashleigh Eldemire-Poindexter, assistant professor of finance at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business, Kimberly F. Luchtenberg (American University), and Matthew M. Wynter (Stony Brook University) examines this question.

The researchers used internal administrative data from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program. This is the first large-scale empirical study of the program, which provides rental payment assistance for low-income households. Some recipients are eligible for assistance with mortgage payments and homeownership expenses.

The team evaluated households that had access to the same level of housing assistance to buy or rent in the same area but faced different opportunities for wealth accumulation due to race. Tracing wealth outcomes of households that previously had accessed housing assistance and eventually became homeowners during the sample period of 2000 to 2020, the authors investigated how homeownership affected racial disparities in wealth.

“The takeaway is that homeownership helps to build wealth for low-income households, but the effect is much less for minorities,” Eldemire-Poindexter said.

Racial Wealth Disparity Among Low-Income Homeowners

Measuring wealth in terms of cash value of financial assets (as reported from HUD) plus home equity, the study found that low-income households transitioning to homeownership experience significant wealth gains compared to renting. However, while white households accumulated $6,100 relative to their tenure as renters, minority households accumulated a mere $1,500, a difference of $4,600. As renters, the wealth difference between minority and white households was only $1,200.

The study found that households with a higher degree of financial fragility (the ratio of total housing expenses to monthly income) while transitioning to home ownership accumulate less wealth from the transition, and that financial fragility increases racial wealth disparities. Minority and white households that were above the median for financial fragility increased their wealth by about $1,300 and $6,600, respectively. For those below the median, the transition increased the wealth of minority and white homeowners by about $2,300 and $5,800, respectively.

Home location also plays a significant role in wealth accumulation. Because a neighborhood’s racial composition can affect the appreciation of home values there, minority households may find that their homes appreciate at lower rates relative to white households.

The researchers found that these racial wealth disparities become more pronounced over time, noting that the wealth differences they documented occurred upon the transition to homeownership, not before. In each of the three years prior to making the transition, the wealth differences between minority and white households were relatively small. However, within the third year of homeownership, white households accumulate significantly more wealth than minority households.

“Our results suggest that homeownership can significantly help households to accumulate wealth, but that homeownership can make wealth disparities between minority and white households more pronounced,” the study concluded.

Eldemire-Poindexter said the study could matter greatly to those affected by the gains and the gaps.

“We’re talking about low-income households, so if any group of people is in need of having some liquidity, some type of real assets, this is that pool,” she said. —Stacy Estep


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