Can Using a Racial Equity Lens Increase Capital in Communities of Color?

1937 map of Philadelphia showing redlining [Public domain]

Applying a racial equity lens to community development has been a topic of discussion in the field for several years. But what does it mean to have a racial equity lens on capital?

To answer, we have to talk about appraisal-based lending—an instrument of systemic racism that still has a profound impact on communities, even after the outlaw of overt redlining more than 50 years ago. IFF, where I work as CEO, has offered non-appraisal-based lending since its founding in 1988, though I admit it is not because we were using an explicit race equity lens. We weren’t thinking about it in those terms at that time. Instead, we were using a kind of “nonprofits equity” lens that forced us to address the challenge of lending to nonprofits that serve lower-income communities.

There is a continuum of activities that CDFIs need to engage in to build a pipeline of viable community development projects, and to truly reach their goal of aligning capital with justice. Along the continuum are activities that entail a lot of CDFI control, and others that don’t, but non-appraisal-based lending is very much within CDFIs’ control, and it’s also central to the ongoing national discussion on racial equity. Using this financial tool as one approach to chipping away at the legacy of racist disinvestment.

The Structural Racism of Appraisal-based Lending

The National Housing Act of 1934, which established the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), gave birth to redlining—a practice in with red lines that designated where to avoid making loans. The FHA made it harder to obtain mortgage insurance and federal guarantees in communities of color, so banks avoided working in those communities.

Even though FHA-driven redlining only applied to home mortgages, appraisers and financial institutions used the maps to set value for all types of lending. Capital became scarcer across the board. And when the supply of capital drops, the price of capital goes up—so communities of color paid higher prices for their capital, thus extracting even more capital from those communities. Scarcity and higher capital prices over a long period deters investment, which deflates price. Values drop.

This vicious cycle played out through the 1960s and then became illegal after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1968. But while banks cannot legally discriminate against communities anymore, the legacy of redlining has forever lowered the (appraised) value of land and properties in these areas.

Consider the child care center that wants to construct a new center on donated land in a formerly redlined community. When they apply for a loan, the bank orders an appraisal, which requires “comparables.” Due to long-standing lack of formal market investment, the comps (if any) and land values are very low.

Simply put: Old government-sanctioned bank regulations drove down the property/land value for decades, and now current bank regulations prevent investment in those areas where appraised-values are low. The bank might still make a loan—but for a 75 percent loan-to-value ratio where the determined “value” is unjustly low. Construction costs will be the same, but the as-built value will be lower, forcing a lower loan amount (see Figure 1).


Chart showing difference between white and Black communities in the amount of equity needed to develop a property


No nonprofit should have to raise more money to serve kids in communities of color than they would have to raise to serve kids in white communities.

This isn’t a 1956 scenario; this is a 2019 scenario. Historical legalized racism creates economic and legacy externalities of devaluation. While outright discrimination is outlawed, past practices have been encoded into policies and regulations such as risk-based pricing and appraisals. Legal or not, the outcome is the same—capital is not reaching communities of color as much as it should.  

Appraisals and Nonprofits

Our target borrowers are nonprofits serving low income communities. In 1988, this was the reality that our then-new organization faced: Nonprofit agencies trying to improve their communities by providing human services, education, health care and affordable housing could only do that if they could access capital (the very purpose of CDFIs). That capital would, among other things, allow them to purchase the facilities they needed to achieve their missions.

But instead of purchasing, they leased. They improved buildings they did not own. They paid property taxes through their for-profit landlords. And then they were still often forced to move out because of rent increases, or because deferred maintenance threatened their clients and staff. Owning their own property could relieve a lot of the pressure these nonprofits were under to maintain their brand, control their destiny, and save valuable money that could be put toward their missions. The problem was that banks wouldn’t lend to small and mid-sized nonprofits, and/or wouldn’t lend in the low-income communities where they worked.

Conventional lending is filtered through an appraisal lens that makes it harder and more expensive for nonprofits serving lower-income communities to access affordable debt. When IFF began, we knew we had to design products around the needs of nonprofits, and none of those products had greater intensity, weight, and success than our non-appraisal based lending. We did not use an explicit race equity lens in determining that appraisal-based lending was causing systemic injustice; but in deconstructing the challenges that faced our target market—nonprofits serving lower-income communities—we knew that we had to construct a different underwriting and approval regimen. We had to create a new “credit box” that did not allow appraisals to determine the value of the invaluable.

Hacking the Appraisal System

One thing our CDFI fundamentally understands is that if we adopt the standard of using appraisals to determine our loan amounts, we would make very few loans in the communities we were founded to serve. You can’t build a CDFI by saying no to clients working in justice and equity.

IFF focused on the logic of appraisals to hack an alternative way of lending on nonprofit facilities. Appraisals are comprised of three approaches for determining “value”:

  • Comparables, which we know gets us nowhere. There are few comps for single-purpose facilities like child care centers or schools, and using comps in communities that have been historically undervalued due to racist policy simply perpetuates the systemic racism that it created in the first place.
  • Replacement costs, which also get us nowhere. It’s not hard to figure out the cost to re-construct a facility, but no appraiser fixes the value of commercial loans on replacement value alone. And of course, that facility must be built on land that is valued based on the comparables above.
  • Income-based approach, which is the approach IFF takes. Instead of asking about the value of the property, IFF asks whether the property is suitable for the nonprofit’s needs and whether the nonprofit can afford the loan payments on our flexible debt. What are the revenues and expenses of the nonprofit, and what is the debt coverage ratio of the proposed project? Yes, IFF is an enterprise cash flow lender on real estate. We are obsessed with understanding revenue projections, government contracting and public policy, fundraising experience and financial management, and board governance and management, all the things that tell us how we will get paid back over the 15-year length of our loans.

Our income-based approach is not perfect. Indeed, some of these criteria need to be further deconstructed to make sure that past biases are not preventing all of our communities from accessing capital. That’s something we’re in constant dialogue about, both internally and with our colleagues in the CDFI space.

We of course know that we haven’t figured out how to solve for racial equity, but we do think that if we remove the barriers that “appraised value” lending has on our communities, we could move the needle toward greater equity. My questions to leaders in the CDFI+ space are:

  • Do you think you could make loans without appraisals?
  • If not, why?
  • If so, what approach would you use to underwrite the loans?
  • Are there other lending barriers based in racist disinvestment that can be hacked? Would that increase pipeline?

My friend Nancy Andrews stated in her acceptance speech for the Ned Gramlich Lifetime Achievement Award, “We will not invest our way out of racism, or misogyny. We need to put race, gender and justice at the heart of everything we do. That will mean doing more than swimming in our lane, side by side with our civil rights colleagues. It means new partnerships, new priorities, a different lens for understanding our work, and a different kind of focus on public policy than we’ve had in the past.”

I couldn’t agree more. Let’s discuss how we best put a race equity lens on capital. How can we keep moving this needle together?

This post was originally published on the author’s blog at

Joe Neri is CEO of IFF, one of the nation’s largest and highest-rated non-depository, diversified CDFIs. He has taught at the graduate planning schools of the universities of Iowa and Illinois, Chicago. He is chair of the board for Acción Chicago, serves on the Community Advisory Committee for U.S. Bank, and previously served on the Community Advisory Committee of the St. Louis Federal Reserve. He holds a master's degree in city planning from UC Berkeley.


  1. To answer your last question briefly: I would look closely at the adopted long-term “vision” by local officials as well as to question the pervasive “urban planning” model used across the U.S. In my city of San Antonio, Tx, our plan calls for aggressive economic growth in market-ready areas, heavily subsidized, leaving a legacy of economic segregation, ranking No. 1 in the U.S. in 2016. Our divide is growing, not closing.
    What has been done since? Nothing.
    Another question worth asking is: how does your community define success, after all is said & done? In my city, it is defined in business terms, rather than in socioeconomic terms. It’s impossible to “move the needle” unless & until you replace the Chamber yardstick to a Community Economic Development one.
    So, if you want to see meaningful, consequential community, economic, workforce, & standards of living progress, begin with these elements in mind, preparing to shift the paradigm to produce better results. Don’t get stuck using one old, dated, narrow, unproductive model.

  2. This article rings true. Recently, our city’s land bank released a RFP for a development project in our community. It was a fantastic opportunity to do impactful housing/mixed used development in our low income/ people of color neighborhood. Our historic community has great potential and is surrounded by rich cultural institutions, but the neighborhood has suffered from years of disinvestment/redlining. Unfortunately, our CDC (even with the prospects of a joint venture) could not make the “numbers work”. So, the RFP will probably go into “rotation”. We are currently exploited by speculating investors….all waiting for the transition. Meanwhile, residents (and a large population of long time renters) are at risk of future displacement. The RFP represented a chance to do affordable housing….maybe even a CLT.
    BUT because our market value is low NOW and does financially support a development project….we lost the opportunity. BUt, I am sure that sometime in the future….the value will change. but, not for the benefit of the existing community.


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