Not many of us can say with any degree of certainty that we know what it is we were truly meant to do. We count ourselves lucky if we end up doing something we both love and are good at. Very few can strategically plan the course our careers will take, because more times than not it’s just the luck of the draw.
Last fall I met Marshall Crawford, then a homeownership specialist for Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation’s national initiative, the NeighborWorks® Campaign for HomeOwnership. (He recently accepted the position of Single-Family Management Consultant in Neighborhood Reinvestment’s Southern District.) During our conversation, I asked him why he chose to focus on homeownership. “I didn’t choose homeownership,” he said. “It chose me.”
In 1978 Congress enacted the Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation Act, which created the Neighborhood Reinvestment organization. The act defined Neighborhood Reinvestment’s mission as “revitalizing older urban neighborhoods by mobilizing public, private and community resources at the neighborhood level.” Now in its 26th year, Neighborhood Reinvestment supports a network of 225 local NeighborWorks organizations working to create affordable homeownership and rental opportunities to build individual and community assets in cities and rural areas around the country.
For over two years, Crawford provided technical, operational and developmental assistance to network members participating in the NeighborWorks HomeOwnership Center® Initiative and Home Equity Loss Prevention Program. He taught classes at NeighborWorks Training Institutes, educating staff on ways to implement and manage their regional homeownership centers. In his new role he will coordinate all single-family lending-related technical assistance and training for Neighborhood Reinvestment’s eight-state southern district as well as lending and counseling initiatives. Crawford has prepared well for the work that he does at Neighborhood Reinvestment, having been involved with the issues important to its homeownership initiative for over a decade.
In 1994, while completing his undergraduate studies at Western Kentucky University, Crawford wrote a senior thesis on disparities in mortgage lending that unearthed for him a disturbing finding: the broad use of discriminatory practices in mortgage lending. Most troubling was the tendency of mortgage lenders to withhold information from minority applicants. Crawford reached the conclusion that in mortgage lending there were rules, and there were exceptions to those rules.
His research conveyed that the two most common rules for obtaining a mortgage were:
• meeting the standard front-end and back-end ratios – generally 24 percent (housing expense divided by net monthly income) and 36 percent (housing expense plus minimum monthly debt payments divided by net monthly income) and
• making down payments – 5 percent for conventional loans and 3 percent for FHA, though the industry currently has a conventional 0 percent down payment.
If a potential homebuyer doesn’t meet the ratios or is unable to come up with enough down payment, a loan officer has the option of informing that person of what Crawford calls the “exceptions.” For example, if a borrower does not qualify for a mortgage because of high credit card debt that brings her over the top of the back-end ratio, a mortgage loan officer could suggest that the borrower pay off all or part of that debt, reducing her monthly expenses. If a slightly higher down payment reduces both front- and back-end ratios to make the numbers work, the loan officer could advise the borrower to obtain “gift” money from a relative and/or have the seller and/or builder pay a portion of the closing costs.
These may seem like common actions that any decent loan officer should take, but Crawford found that mortgage loan officers most often shared exceptions to (or ways around) these rules primarily with traditional, non-minority borrowers, leaving few lending options for many minority and lower-income families. Believing that homeownership is one of the better ways to build wealth, he sees this practice as a hindrance to asset building for certain disadvantaged groups. Crawford’s thesis concluded that what was needed was a greater awareness of such lending practices and a strategic plan to circumvent them.
Today, much of what Crawford found in his thesis is still very true. Although the importance of homebuyer education and counseling is being emphasized more than ever, he feels discrimination still occurs, though not always intentionally. Crawford recalls the time when he worked as a loan officer that a same-sex couple came to him seeking a home loan. They did not meet the standard ratio requirements, and Crawford says it was their look of rejection that caught his attention and forced him to face a troubling realization: He was engaging in the very discriminatory behavior he discovered in his thesis. He had explained the “rules” to the couple, but not the “exceptions” that could, and ultimately did, help them secure their loan. Crawford apologized, and today admits that once he removed his biases, the loan was no different, and just as simple, as any he’d written before. He acknowledges that if he had not written on that topic, he would have discriminated against that couple, and perhaps others. Writing the thesis gave him an awareness that he otherwise would not have had. “I never received any training about discriminatory practices as a loan officer,” he says. “Just imagine how many people, who are in a position to help someone become a homeowner, do not even think twice about whether or not they are discriminating against someone.”
Having spent nearly seven years working for both private and federal institutions, Crawford was sometimes challenged by those unmotivated to do more, by the lack of passion in others and their common lack of desire to make a difference. He wanted to be around people who shared the same joy and excitement in their work as he did and to work with an organization whose mission was to change the dynamic of what is happening in the world around him. That opportunity came from Neighborhood Reinvestment and the NeighborWorks network.
In 1992, 20 NeighborWorks organizations united to launch the NeighborWorks Campaign for HomeOwnership to help low- to moderate-income families become homeowners. The initial five-year campaign assisted 15,880 families into homeownership and attracted more than $1.1 billion in total investments. Because of the success of the first campaign, NeighborWorks launched a second campaign in 1998. Over the past 10 years, the campaign has helped over 60,000 new homeowners, provided counseling to 350,000 people and invested $5 billion in communities nationwide. From the Campaign emerged the NeighborWorks HomeOwnership Centers, the one-stop shop for families and individuals to receive advice, comprehensive training and loan services needed to purchase, rehabilitate, insure and maintain a home.
In 2002, when Neighborhood Reinvestment presented Crawford the opportunity to assist with the development of the HomeOwnership Center Initiative and the Home Equity Loss Prevention Program, he accepted because it gave him “the opportunity to be involved in grassroots activities within communities and to have an impact on the people who actually need assistance.” And he was able to work with people as motivated as he was.
How did Crawford become so driven to help others fulfill their dreams? A chance meeting with Dr. Maulana Karenga – professor and chair of the Department of Black Studies at California State University at Long Beach, and the creator of Kwaanza – helped develop his thinking. During that meeting, Karenga told Crawford: “The basic justification for higher education is to enhance our social competence, so that we can make a more significant contribution to society.” Those words inspired Crawford in his life’s pursuit to make a significant contribution to society.
His role at Neighborhood Reinvestment gives him the platform to do that. His background in finance and mortgage lending, through previous experiences as an examiner with the Office of Thrift Supervision and a loan officer with Prudential Savings Bank, SunTrust Bank and the Small Business Administration, prepared him to address the needs of the NeighborWorks network and the communities it serves. Of the various responsibilities he has, one gives him the chance to personally rectify the problem of mortgage lending disparity.
The NeighborWorks Full-Cycle Lending® model lets lenders, government agencies and other nonprofit member organizations provide homeownership opportunities to families who traditionally do not qualify for conventional mortgages. Through this model, homeownership rates among low-income and minority families rose. Neighborhood Reinvestment data showed that homeownership increased among the nation’s most underserved buyers – women, minorities and low-income families. Data collected by the Federal Reserve reflected that NeighborWorks HomeOwnership Centers serve African-American and Hispanic homebuyers at five times the national rate, low-income buyers at three times the national rate and women at more than twice the national rate. Of those assisted through the Campaign for HomeOwnership, 94 percent were first-time homebuyers; 90 percent were low- or moderate-income households; 67 percent earned less that 80 percent of area median income; 53 percent were minority households and 43 percent were female-headed households. The median family income of homebuyers is roughly $31,000.
The significance of the work that Neighborhood Reinvestment does continues to drive Marshall Crawford: providing basic tools and strategies for new homeownership programs, homebuyer education and counseling programs for both pre-purchase and post-purchase and diagnostic assessment of homeownership and lending programs – significantly reducing the number of families who are excluded from achieving the dream of homeownership. The NeighborWorks Full-Cycle Lending model, in essence, was the solution to reducing disparities in mortgage lending that Crawford had discovered a decade ago.
Though he may not realize it, Crawford places a lot of emphasis on “people.” His entire life is devoted to helping people, he thrives when working with individuals who are motivated and driven, and he admits to having learned a great deal from others. Crawford says it’s the advice from some of them that has shaped his personal and professional goals. At the end of our conversation I asked him to share a piece of advice with me. He said that part of “life is about learning, and what I have learned is not for me [alone].” He advises that we use whatever knowledge we obtain to make our society, our communities or our neighbors better. That is, the knowledge and education that we have obtained should ultimately be for the benefit of others because it enables us to help others in areas where they may not otherwise benefit.
From the beginning Crawford appears to have been perfectly positioned to take on his role at Neighborhood Reinvestment, serving the NeighborWorks network. He is one of the lucky ones who is both good at and loves what he does. And though his path wasn’t strategically planned, it’s hard to say if it was just the luck of the draw.
Neighborhood Reinvestment Corporation
1325 G St., NW, Ste. 800
Washington, DC 20005