Unequal LendingRedefining Home in the Land of Inopportunity

Wives Ayanah Moor, left, and Jamila Raegan in their Chicago home (Photo credit: Ryan Edmund)

This article was published in Sanctuary Issue #85 | Winter 2020

If you follow mainstream media, then you’ve already heard that millennials, projected to be the largest living generation in the United States in 2019, are killing all sorts of industries. Among the casualties are golf, department stores, and real estate, since we’re not buying as many houses as Boomers did when they were our ages. Millennials are generally more tech-savvy, college-educated, and racially diverse than previous generations; they’re also less likely to get married, have children, procure savings, and own homes. The white American notion that one must go to college, buy a car, get a job, get married, buy a house, and then have kids has created unrealistic expectations that, if not achieved, are construed as a personal failure. But in 2019, it’s become clear that many of us have outgrown the 1950s-era ideal of prioritizing home ownership—a uniform construct of the nuclear two-parent cisheteropatriarchal family structure as a status symbol—most likely because it was never achievable to begin with.

But though this formulaic path to a successful American lifestyle becomes more and more absurd, impractical, and to many millennials, undesirable, the fact remains that in this country, your zip code determines the kinds of jobs you get; how much money you make; what schools your kids go to; your life expectancy; the quality of food, air, and water around you; and whether or not the generations that succeed you can accumulate wealth. So in a struggling economy and an unjust country, where will we live? For the LGBTQ community in particular, the meaning of “family,” the concept of community, and the struggle for housing differs from the one-size-fits-all approach prescribed to and by cishet Americans.

In an economic model that wasn’t built with us in mind, how can we afford to buy homes—long-term, sustainable sanctuaries that strengthen the collective? As is so often the case, we’ve had to think outside the box. I’ve been speaking to queer and trans collective homeowners, Black and Indigenous land stewards, femme financial advisors, and trans realtors to find alternative, nonnormative housing structures that could help us secure the sanctuaries so many of us need today. Headlines like “Lay Off the Avocado Toast If You Want a House” and “Millennials Need to Put Away the Juice Boxes and Grow Up” that frame low-income millennials as failures sullying the American Dream can make the situation seem even bleaker, but that’s where community steps in: Another world is possible, and it begins with redefining “home.” 

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A History of Housing Apartheid

“A nation of homeowners, of people who won a real share in their own land, is unconquerable.” —Franklin Roosevelt

There’s an unspoken bias in the millennial-murder narrative: More of us are queer, trans, poor, and of color than in previous generations, and while we’ve always been here, mainstream media didn’t care as long as we didn’t significantly affect a housing market that thrived on inequality. We have been locked out of upward mobility for so long that as the minority and majority slowly switch places, industries that solely served the haves are failing to keep up—and throwing a tantrum in the process. Though the millennial homeownership rate has slowly risen in the past few years, a 2018 study by the Urban Institute found that 39.5 percent of homeowners in the United States are white, 27.2 percent are Asian, 24.6 percent are Latinx, and only 13.4 percent are Black. The Urban Institute concluded that “current trends will result in even greater wealth disparities among white, Black, and Hispanic millennials.” Most of the millennials buying homes are white and have parents or relatives who can help them make down payments.

Since millennials are also more likely to be college-educated, we’ve incurred more debt earlier on in our lives; since many of us aren’t white or weren’t born in the United States, we don’t reap the benefits of generational wealth that previous generations did; and since we’re living with the consequences of the housing-market crisis, entering unstable labor markets with student debt, and likely renting in cities with a dearth of affordable housing, it’s difficult to save for a down payment. White millennials who have grown up on tales of the American Dream may feel shortchanged, but Black people, Indigenous people, and other people of color—especially queer and trans Black Americans—have been intentionally excluded from these hallmarks of adulthood since this country’s inception.

It’s been illegal to discriminate on the basis of color or race since the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1866, which defined citizenship and promised equal rights for all citizens, but the FHA was undermined in the subsequent legislative process by a lack of enforcement, a lack of federal protections, and by terrorist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Another Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968, spurred on by the grassroots work of Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders who were fighting for fair housing for Black Chicagoans. But the new FHA was again undermined by subsequent presidential administrations: Ronald Reagan, for instance, conspired with the National Association of Realtors to weaken the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)’s ability to detect discrimination, as detailed in Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton’s 1993 book American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass.

Raub Welch, left, and daughter Mya Welch-Taylor in the backyard of their Chicago home (Photo credit: Ryan Edmund)

Currently, LGBTQ people have no federal protection from housing discrimination, though 48 percent of LGBTQ people are protected on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in 21 states and in Washington, D.C. (Three other states have enacted protections for sexual preference.) Still, 50 percent of LGBTQ Americans live within the 30 states that offer no fair housing protections, and discrimination still occurs in protected states. Additionally, the Center for American Progress concluded in 2012 that since “outdated family policies and the narrow definition of ‘family’ in federal law further undermine the economic security of gay- and transgender-headed families of color…[they] are more likely to live in poverty than any other demographic.” Disproportionate poverty and unemployment rates coupled with the fact that nearly 40 percent of LGBTQ youth are homeless and many of the homeless population are people of color, the right to fair housing is a key issue for our community that’s only exacerbated by the current economy. 

All-American Rejects

“I am tired of seeing my children—I call everybody including yous [sic] in this room, you are all my children—I am tired of seeing homeless transgender children; young, gay, youth children.” —Sylvia Rivera

It’s no surprise that, at 49 percent, LGBTQ homeownership rates lag behind that of cishet Americans, with those numbers dropping to 23 percent for millennials, according to a 2018 study by the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (a.k.a. Freddie Mac). Nearly half of prospective LGBTQ homeowners rightfully cite fear of discrimination as an obstacle to purchasing, and they often face homo-, bi-, and trans-antagonism at every stage in the process. In a 2013 paired testing pilot, HUD found that gay couples received fewer responses to email inquiries about available units in rental ads than straight ones, and in a similar 2017 Urban Institute pilot, “housing providers were less likely to make an appointment with gay male couples, told them about one fewer available rental unit for every 4.2 they mentioned to heterosexual men, and quoted gay men average yearly rent costs that were $272 higher.”

The Urban Institute report also states that trans testers who didn’t disclose their identities were told about fewer units than cis ones and that those who stated their trans status were less likely to learn of available units at all. In 2011, the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 19 percent of trans people had been refused a home or apartment, while the Center for American Progress reports that 37 percent of Black trans renters had been evicted due to transphobia (that number shrinks to 8 percent for white trans folks). Finally, gay couples often pay more in taxes than straight couples when they buy or sell a house or transfer ownership interest, and if the proper legal documents aren’t drawn up, “one partner may find himself or herself out of a home” if the couple separates or one of them dies, according to the Human Rights Campaign.    

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“I’ve worked with many LGBTQ clients who have been treated poorly by neighbors, realtors, loan officers, and closing agents simply because of who they are,” a trans Latina real estate agent who wished to remain anonymous told me over email. Fear of discrimination has only risen since November 2016: Jeff Berger, founder of the National Association of Gay and Lesbian Real Estate Professionals (NAGLREP), concluded in the group’s most recent LGBTQ real estate report that “58 percent of our members believe [the current White House administration’s] policies on LGBTQ issues are having a negative impact on the community’s confidence to buy or sell homes.” So it makes sense that working with LGBTQ brokers and agents often leads to better outcomes. “I know for a fact from my experience [that] there would definitely be a higher trust and comfort level for LGBTQ home buyers if there were more out and open agents as well as brokerages,” the anonymous realtor tells me.

Of the 65 percent of LGBTQ homebuyers who used LGBTQ-identified or -allied realtors, 57 percent chose to work with them because of their identity or stated allyship, according to NAGLREP. (You can use NAGLREP’s database to find a real estate professional near you.) “LGBTQ people want to talk about their partners, family planning, and all the things that everyone else enjoys when house hunting, without fear of discrimination.” Though the realtor I spoke with has experienced transphobic antagonism and harassment from industry professionals as well as from her own cishet clients, she feels “fortunate to work with many clients who have reached out to me specifically because they’re looking for a realtor they can feel comfortable [working with].”

As queer and trans millennials consider the obstacles that might deter their path to homeownership, they’ve also begun seeking nontraditional forms of permanent living situations, like adapting vans, buses, RVs, boats, sheds, storage units, shipping containers, and prefab outhouse buildings to live in, as well as acquiring land on which to construct yurts, cabins, tiny homes, and more. I’ve logged considerable fantasy hours bingeing How to Live Mortgage Free with Sarah Beeny on Netflix and scrolling through alternative-living ideas on Pinterest. LGBTQ people tend to live farther away from our families and our hometowns, so we also tend to have better outcomes when we join together to form our own families and live collectively.

“I’ve visited plots of land that are zoned as agricultural or residential to begin planning my home build,” bisexual writer Vanessa Angélica Villarreal told me over email. Her plan is to buy land, build a co-op style home with an additional dwelling unit for her aging parents, and live mortgage-free with her son. But there are tons of factors to consider in her search, like whether or not the land is in an insurable zone, a flood zone, or near a fault line; if it has utilities or a septic system already in place; and whether or not she needs the legal approval of neighbors to build. “It’s a dream that feels something like being free,” she says. “It’s just going to take a long time and a lot of hard work to get there.”

It’s no surprise that, at 49 percent, LGBTQ homeownership rates lag behind that of cishet Americans, with those numbers dropping to 23 percent for millennials.

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Securing Sanctuary

Revolution is based on land. Land is the basis of all independence. Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.” —Malcolm X

While cheap alternative living holds a strong allure, it can be difficult to receive other benefits attached to traditional homeownership. Given the history of discriminatory housing policies in the United States and the level at which these policies still determine who gets to hold and transfer power, ownership is still considered an important part of building queer wealth—taking property off of the unjust housing market and keeping it in the community. “I’m of the belief that, given the current incarnation of market capitalism as we live in it, it is ideal for queer and trans people to purchase homes, commercial buildings, and land,” queer femme financial advisor Hadassah Damien, who literally wrote the guide on collective queer homeownership, asserted in an email.

While it can be more difficult for collectives to navigate paperwork and estate division, combining multiple incomes allows for lower costs for each co-owner, as well as a chance to build community without being tied to a cisheteronormative marriage dynamic. According to SAGE, an advocacy organization for LGBTQ elders, LGBTQ people are twice as likely to age alone and face more discrimination in elder care and estate planning than their cishet counterparts, so long-term co-ownership can bring a greater sense of physical and economic security. (SAGE maintains a database of LGBTQ-friendly housing developers.) “Participating is important when it comes to owning homes [in order] to create stability and places of refuge for other queer and trans people,” Damien says.

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photo of parents Mercedes Santos and Theresa Volpe with their children Ava, Jaidon, and Lennox on their front stoop

Mercedes Santos, middle, and Theresa Volpe, top right, with their children Ava, Jaidon, and Lennox on their front stoop. (Photo credit: Ryan Edmund)

I spoke to a few of Damien’s clients, including a self-described “homosteading” throuple who successfully bought a house together by each contributing to the down payment and then splitting the mortgage three ways. “It was a slight challenge finding a realtor willing to work with us because of the odd situation of three adults buying a house together without any combination of us being married [and] with all three of us being trans, visibly queer, and Muslim, Jewish, or people of color,” co-owner Cal wrote me. After drawing inspiration from Diana Leafe Christian’s 2003 book, Creating a Life Together: Practical Tools to Grow Ecovillages and Intentional Communities, the group met with Damien to plan their long-term finances. However, the paperwork is in only one co-owner’s name, making it a slightly riskier arrangement for that one person until the group can afford to add the other co-owners to the deed.

Eventually, Cal’s throuple intends to add between six and eight other LGBTQ people to their house. “If you are purchasing the property because one person in your group has access to resources through family, inheritance, or work, which in my experience is common, it’s very important to outline whether that money is a collective donation,” says Damien. Creating a Life Together also inspired Leah Penniman to purchase land in upstate New York with her partner Jonah in 2006, start the Soul Fire Farm Land Stewardship Collective LLC, and write her own book, Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land. Leah and Jonah now have a CSA program, a nonprofit (Soul Fire Farm Institute, Inc.), and a nine-member governing council, “including the Land herself, who has veto power through divination,” Penniman told me in an email exchange.

So how were two people able to create such a structured, affordable, and intentional community on a public-school teacher’s savings? They began by taking out loans from a community credit circle (CCC) instead of a bank, keeping them from starting a cycle of debt. “Known as tandas, susus, cuninhas, hui, and pandeiros, depending on where you go,” a NerdWallet CCC guide states, “informal lending circles, a form of friends-and-family borrowing, have been around for centuries, embedded in cultures worldwide.” A group of people can decide upon the amount of the loan, and each person puts down their share until the entire amount is repaid, at low or no cost or interest, depending on the agreement. CCCs like the nonprofit Mission Asset Fund, the website eMoneyPool, and mobile app Esusu “report payment activity to one or more of the three major credit bureaus, which allows people with no credit experience or with damaged credit to build a score,” according to NerdWallet. This structure can also decrease the risks of carcerality tied to debt, particularly for Black and brown folks.

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photo of husbands Tyler Greene (left) and Ziwu Zhou (right) and son Sam on their porch

Husbands Tyler Greene, left, and Ziwu Zhou and son Sam on their porch (Photo credit: Ryan Edmund)

Other unconventional homeowners have been able to follow a community land trust (CLT) model that basically functions like a traditional co-op, leasing residential sites to approved members at affordable rates. (As it is their ancestral homeland, there’s an easement for the Mohican people who are on Soul Fire.) The CLT model was pioneered by civil-rights activists in Georgia who sought to work as self-employed farmers to avoid being fired for their activism—as well as to keep land in Black hands. As Ebonie Alexander, executive director of the Black Family Land Trust, states on their website, “Land is a tangible asset with economic, human, and spiritual value, which connects African Americans with their rich history in the Americas and their ancestors.” Today, white Americans own more than 98 percent of land. With this in mind, Soul Fire started a reparations map to connect Black and Indigenous people of color seeking to participate in land stewardship and food justice work with those who already have access.

Though white queer and trans settlers have also started their own intentional communities across the country, so much more progress could be made if they returned that land to Black and Indigenous folks as a form of reparations, as was the case with Harriet Tubman Freedom Farm in Durham, North Carolina; Harmony Homestead & Wholeness Center in Hillsdale, New York; and WILDSEED Community Farm & Healing Village, in Millerton, New York. Finally, Penniman advises those who aspire to follow in her footsteps to “put everything in writing and be ready for the long haul. Institution building is demanding and sacred work.” “It’s important to acknowledge that colonization and land ownership is beyond complicated,” Damien says, “and yet, in the current reality in which we live, not acquiring places to live only puts queer and trans people at an economic disadvantage.” While the traditional path to owning land and homes in the United States has been paved by settler colonialism, chattel slavery, and a legacy of housing discrimination, the history of nonhierarchical queer living is even longer.

“Until we overthrow the property system, it is important for us to have stable homes and to build assets and resources to take care of ourselves and each other with,” Damien adds. The reality remains that, when kept within the community, homeownership as an affordable, accessible reality greatly increases the quality of life for LGBTQ millennials, especially those of color. As the Black Family Land Trust’s website asserts, “We are in a critical period of land ownership and the transfer of wealth in this country. The time has come to remove the traditional work silos and begin offering comprehensive services and programs that protect the land for the seventh generation.” With lots of work, persistence, and resistance, securing sanctuary may be within the grasp of our queer and trans millennial generation.

Editor’s note: These photos originally appeared in the Chicago Reader on June 27, 2019.

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by Bani Amor
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Bani Amor is a gender/queer travel writer who explores the relationships between race, place, and power. Their work has appeared in CNN Travel, Fodor’s, AFAR, and Teen Vogue, and in Outside the XY: Queer Black and Brown Masculinity, and the upcoming Where We Stand: Brown and Black Voices Speak the Earth. Follow them on Twitter @bani_amor and on Instagram at @baniamor