SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Graciano and Buena de la Cruz bought their two-bedroom house in San Francisco two decades ago when the neighborhood teemed with drug dealers.
In 2006, the couple refinanced and signed up for a “pick-a-payment” loan with an adjustable rate, one that provided low monthly payments at first but later ballooned as the interest rate climbed. Graciano, who is 70, and Buena, 62, fell behind on payments.
Now, the de la Cruzes must sell their house to pay off a $640,000 debt. They will join the ranks of African Americans who do not own their homes, a rate that was nearly 30 percentage points higher than that of whites in 2016, according to a new report.
“I can’t sleep,” said Graciano de la Cruz, a Yorkshire Terrier named Flower at his feet in a home crammed with VHS tapes and bicycles for seven kids now grown. “I fear I might get a knock on the door, and the banker will come up with sheriff’s agents talking about, ‘You got to leave now.’”
The nation’s homeownership rate appears to be stabilizing as people rebound from the 2007 recession that left millions unemployed and home values underwater, according to the report by Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.
But it found African Americans aren’t sharing in the recovery, even as whites, Asian Americans and Latinos slowly see gains in home-buying. The center said the disparity between whites and blacks is at its highest in 70-plus years of data.
Experts say reasons for the lower homeownership rate range from historic underemployment and low wages to a recession-related foreclosure crisis that hit black communities particularly hard.
African Americans snapped up homes at the peak of the housing bubble, lured by generous lending and a glut of affordable properties, housing experts say. But lenders also targeted minorities, pushing riskier subprime loans even when applicants qualified for lower-interest loans. In 2004, the pinnacle of U.S. homeownership, three-quarters of whites and nearly half of blacks owned homes, according to the Harvard study.
By 2016, the African American homeowner rate had fallen to 42.2 percent and lagged 29.7 percentage points behind whites, nearly a percentage point higher than in 2015.
Now, a lack of affordable housing and stricter lending are making it harder for first-time buyers to obtain what traditionally has been considered an essential part of the American dream and a way to build wealth.
“It has always been historically and systemically harder for blacks, and we were seeing there a little bit of progress, and now we’re back at square one,” said Alanna McCargo, co-director of the Housing Finance Policy Center at the Urban Institute, a think-tank focused on inner-city issues that published a similar report .
An AP analysis of U.S. Census Bureau statistics shows some pockets of the Midwest and California had the lowest rates of homeownership for African Americans, while some areas of the South had the highest.
Low inventory is adding to the problem, said Jeffrey Hicks, incoming president of the National Association of Real Estate Brokers , which was founded in 1947 to promote fair housing opportunities for minorities. The Atlanta area has only about 30,000 properties for sale through real estate agents, compared with approximately 100,000 about 13 years ago, he said.
“You had subdivisions going up everywhere in terms of newer homes,” Hicks said. “We haven’t seen that resurgence of new housing stock.”
African Americans also are losing homes they had a hard time securing in the first place.
For decades the federal government refused to guarantee mortgages in nonwhite neighborhoods. Whites-only covenants shut out black buyers. In 1960s San Francisco, the city condemned Graciano de La Cruz’s mother’s house for redevelopment in the historically black Fillmore neighborhood. She was given a housing voucher and became a renter, losing any equity she might have been able to pass to her children.
Graciano and Buena, who bought their first home in 1997, were faring well when they refinanced with World Savings Bank in August 2006.
They asked for a loan with a fixed rate, but the lender said an adjustable rate package would meet their needs. The initial payment for the pick-a-payment loan was about $1,700 a month.
Then Buena de la Cruz’s health declined, and she stopped working as an events coordinator. Graciano de la Cruz lost his job at a Home Depot. In 2014, Wells Fargo, which had purchased World Savings , issued a notice of default.
By then, the monthly payments had mushroomed to roughly $3,000. The couple has until September to sell a house valued at $800,000 to pay off their mortgage. They don’t know where they will go. They don’t know where they will go, but they don’t expect to have enough money left to buy another home in the San Francisco area.
The pick-a-payment loans drew wide government scrutiny. In 2010, Wells Fargo agreed to pay $24 million to end an investigation by eight states, including California, into whether lenders later acquired by the bank made risky and unsustainable mortgages without disclosing the terms.
Wells Fargo has vowed to help create more than 250,000 new African-American homeowners to address declining homeownership. But spokesman Alfredo Padilla said the bank could not find a way to help the couple.
Yet there are bright spots.
The New Haven metro area in Connecticut, for example, reported an increase in black homeownership from 2010 to 2015. Georgia’s Albany area, which is predominantly African American, saw a 15 percent increase from 2005 to 2015.
In Detroit, a largely African-American city wracked by foreclosures, the mayor last year announced a financing program to make home-buying easier. Previously, banks couldn’t provide loans for more than a home’s appraised value, which wasn’t enough to cover needed repairs or renovations.
And in Jacksonville, Florida, 32-year-old Natasha Jones recently bought her first home, a three-bedroom listed at $135,000. The single mother of three worked with a member of the nonprofit NeighborWorks America , which supports community development, to clear up her credit and save for a down payment on a Wells Fargo-financed loan.
“I am my mom’s first child to own my home,” Jones said. “Now that we’re in our own place, I’m redoing the flooring the way I want to. I’m painting the kids’ walls. It’s ours.”
Associated Press writer Corey R. Williams in Detroit and data journalist Angeliki Kastanis in Los Angeles contributed to this report.