Muriel Bowser black homeownership
Mayor Muriel Bowser pledged to add 20,000 new black homeowners to the city by 2030. Can she hit that goal without addressing foreclosures? Credit: Alex Koma

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Mayor Muriel Bowser and her deputies are clearly aware that Black homeowners are being pushed out of D.C.

She held a lengthy event at the Howard Theatre bemoaning that trend Monday and pledging to do everything she can to reverse it, unveiling a glossy, 28-page report from her recently convened “strike force” full of strategies to tackle the issue. Thumb through its pages, and you can find example after example of why the city has seen a steady decline in Black homeownership over the past 30 years.

There are housing affordability concerns, of course, and the broader framework of structural racism to consider. Black residents are still substantially more likely to be denied a mortgage than their White counterparts. But the report keenly observes that D.C. has historically had some of the highest rates of Black homeownership in the country, so there must be factors that account for the fact that the city lost 3,045 Black homeowners between 2018 and 2020 alone. The report notes that homeowners association fees and condominium fees have rapidly increased (finding a 49 percent jump in median dues between 2005 and 2015), which disproportionately affect Black residents. Even more troubling, the report concludes that home appraisal values have shot up in majority-Black areas of the city, which could be due to the historic pattern of property assessors overvaluing Black-owned homes (causing property tax bills to skyrocket).

Yet, faced with all this evidence that many Black homeowners are on the brink, what is Bowser doing to stop an approaching surge in foreclosures? Loose Lips was distinctly underwhelmed by her answers.

Astute City Paper readers may recall that a key deadline lapsed Friday for anyone struggling to make their mortgage payments. The city’s last bit of pandemic-related protections against foreclosures finally expired, even though D.C. is still handing out federal money to help people pay their bills. Anyone who applied for relief money through the city’s $50 million “Homeowner Assistance Fund” by Sept. 30 will be protected from foreclosure, even if they haven’t received cash from the city yet. But everyone else is out of luck.

That deadline could have major consequences for thousands of homeowners. A spokesperson for the Department of Housing and Community Development, which is administering the fund, tells LL that more than 1,300 people have submitted applications for relief money since the program (belatedly) opened on June 30. But nearly 5,600 people in total have registered and begun applications, meaning that there’s at least 4,300 homeowners who need financial relief but are now exposed to foreclosure proceedings. Legal advocates suspect there are many more people in similar situations who simply don’t know about D.C.’s various relief funds.

The D.C. Council hasn’t taken up the issue, leaving the matter off its Tuesday agenda despite pleas from activists that there should be additional protections for homeowners applying for this foreclosure relief as the process grinds forward. It would require legislative action to make those protections a reality, so this isn’t all on the mayor, but Bowser hasn’t exactly been publicly agitating for that to happen either.

So what, exactly, will Bowser do to meet the goals of her strike force and avert any unnecessary foreclosures? Surely, action here would be a thoughtful way to make a difference right away, considering her own report shows Black homeowners are more likely to be cost-burdened and need financial aid in the wake of the pandemic.

“We have an existing program for foreclosure assistance,” Bowser notes in response to LL’s questions Monday, seemingly unbothered by the potential impacts of the foreclosure moratorium’s end. She also observes that the city requires lenders to engage in mediation with borrowers before foreclosing on them, which should give them extra time to find an alternative to losing their homes (a requirement which dates back to her days as a councilmember).

Drew Hubbard, Bowser’s interim director of DHCD, adds that there’s no reason for panic about the state of affairs because “we’re not talking about people being in imminent danger of being out of their homes.” The mediation process can give people more chances to negotiate with their lenders on a payment plan, then the District’s relief money can be an important “backstop” if they need it, he says.

But advocates say it’s considerably more difficult for people to stave off foreclosure once lenders initiate these proceedings, particularly if they start tacking on legal fees as these matters head to court. Shirley Horng, a senior staff attorney at the Legal Aid Society of D.C., adds that condo associations face fewer legal obligations than other lenders and can move to foreclosure proceedings with just 31 days’ notice, often without court oversight. What are the city’s answers for these homeowners? They’re in short supply.

Hubbard is confident, however, that the city can get the federal relief money out the door in time to help people who are struggling (though he could not say quite how much of the $50 million the agency handed out so far). He says officials “never had any idea that we’re going to spend $50 million in the first three, four months or so,” and it’s perfectly reasonable that the process could take several months, if not years, to finish.

He says the city could supplement these federal dollars with local funds if it follows the recommendations from Bowser’s strike force. The group suggested that the city create an aid program modeled after the HAF to continue helping homeowners in need, and Hubbard sees that as being “complementary” to the federal money. Bowser says she expects to fully endorse the recommendations of the strike force as she prepares her new budget, a process that’s already underway now that the new fiscal year just started on Oct 1.

But that aid, should it materialize, is still a long way off. Horng says advocates still have hope for a legislative fix from the Council, and at least one lawmaker has expressed interest in introducing legislation on the subject since the Sept. 30 deadline passed, but for now, the issue is at an impasse.

If Bowser truly wants to see D.C. net 20,000 new Black homeowners by 2030, as she announced Monday, she better hope that changes.