A few months after moving into her new house in Connecticut, Nia Simons (name changed to protect her privacy) arrived home from a work trip and could hear laughter and loud music coming from her neighbor’s house. As she opened her windows, one by one, to let in some fresh air, the lyrics of the music became clearer. “Did I just hear the word ‘n****r’?” Simons thought to herself.
Simons, who is Black, made her way to the back porch and saw her neighbors, who are white, gathered at a fire pit next door. The chorus repeated, “. . . you n****r. You got a gun but mine is much bigger!” The light sensor from her porch turned on. As the group noticed Simons, she heard them cackle, “Oh, I think we’re disturbing our neighbor!” She quickly went back inside.
A few minutes later she heard the doorbell. Hesitant and disturbed after what she had just heard, she approached the door, only to find no one there. Seconds later, the doorbell rang again. She went to answer it, but again, found no one at the door. For an hour, her neighbors played ding-dong-ditch at her house.
For over two years, Simons was harassed by her neighbors, who watched her every move while she lived in the house she had constructed in an empty lot in a predominantly white neighborhood. “While there were multiple things that impacted their interactions with me,” Simons says, “I do think how they interacted with me, regardless of what got us there, was solely about race.”
Black Americans—along with other people of color—travel a road full of barriers in their journey to homeownership, as evidenced by the history of redlining and blockbusting. But beyond these forms of systemic racism during the purchasing process, Black people in particular often face continued discrimination, harassment, and othering as homeowners, contributing to ongoing segregation and inequity. Simons’ experience as a Black woman living in a predominantly white neighborhood is an example of how, while policy is imperative to democratizing homeownership, individual behavior and the broader culture are the true drivers, and inhibitors, of inclusion.
The Search for a House
Black people have less wealth than their white counterparts, due in part to centuries of racist policies and practices that systematically excluded them from education, health care, housing, and justice in the legal system. Homeownership is a key path to building wealth in the United States, and primary residences account for 30 percent of all household wealth in America. The gap in homeownership rates is one reason the median wealth of a Black family is $24,100, 7.8 times less than that of a white family, which is $188,200. According to U.S. Census Bureau figures for the first quarter of 2021, the homeownership rate for white households was 73.8 percent, much higher than that of Black households at 45.1 percent.
For Simons, owning a home was far more than simply the biggest purchase of her lifetime; it signified access to intergenerational wealth, an asset that could be passed down to her family. She had long dreamt of buying a “forever home” for herself and her son in Hartford, Connecticut. She rented there for many years and wanted to stay in that community. However, many of the homes were out of her price range, and even when she did find something she could afford, she was often outbid by cash buyers and investors. After she’d been searching for two years, a friend who was a contractor recommended that she build her home instead. Frustrated and tired of searching, Simons agreed and started the process of building a two-family house outside the city—a decision that, she felt, would relieve some pressure from the mortgage, making it more affordable.
Harassment, Policing, and an Unwelcoming Neighborhood
After a long, stressful financing process, Simons was excited and relieved to start construction. She reflects on first meeting her neighbors: “I remember standing out the back door and seeing my neighbor to the right of me for the first time. He asked me a bunch of questions—he seemed so nice. That was probably the last nice, civil conversation I had with him, probably for about 2 years. They were horrific.” For the next few months, Simons experienced something close to nightmare hazing—reminiscent of scenes from the Jordan Peele racial horror film, Get Out—that reminded her she would never be fully accepted, and would always be watched and policed.
One of the first incidents happened early in the construction phase. Simons received a call from her contractor who told her that a complaint had been filed against her because the driveway was 1 inch away from her neighbor’s property line. Surprised by the accusation, Simons double-checked the property and measured the driveway: it was 2 feet away from her neighbor’s line. After that incident, she began to receive pop-up visits from an inspector, who, she later realized, was her neighbor’s friend. Simons was frustrated. Every complaint put a pause on construction, required the inspector to come by, and further delayed an already lengthy process.
The house was expected to be finished in March, but every deadline was pushed back. Construction was finally completed in July, and Simons was eager to begin moving in her belongings. Since she was not cleared to move in until Monday, she booked a hotel for the weekend and spent all day Friday dropping off her belongings. At the end of the day, she was so tired that she fell asleep on the floor, on top of a few pillows. The next morning, she received a call from her contractor that her neighbors had filed a complaint that someone was staying at the house, even though a Certificate of Occupancy had not been issued. Simons’ first thought was, “How do my neighbors know that I don’t have my COO?” From the inspector pop-up visits to the multiple filed complaints, her every move was being monitored and policed. Her neighbors were well-connected in the community and could quickly get their grievances addressed by the town in a way that she could not.
From White Flight to Racial Hazing—the Drivers of Racial Segregation
From their earliest conversations, Simons’ neighbors pointed to her race using coded language (conveying bigoted ideas without explicitly mentioning biology or skin color) and outright bigotry that revealed deep-seated stereotypes about the Black community, and it quickly became evident that racial integration was not going to be tolerated in this white neighborhood. On one occasion, when Simons visited her neighbor to apologize for the delay in construction, she was told, “Nobody wants you here. We don’t need your kind here!” Simons recalled, “It had already been established that I did not deserve respect and that’s how they continued to treat me.”
She endured a number of incidents both during construction and after moving in. One night her tenant called her about a neighbor lighting a firecracker outside her window to rile up her dog. Another time, a neighbor drunkenly yelled Simons’ name by her window all night. And on yet another occasion, a neighbor approached Simons’ son and landscaper demanding that they not cut down a set of trees at Simons’ house. The conversation got heated and the neighbor refused to leave Simons’ property, prompting her son to threaten to call the police. The neighbor scoffed at the young man of color, “You are going to call the police on me, you low-life thug?” The neighbor’s biases about people of color made it comical, if not incomprehensible, to imagine that a Black man would call the police on a white woman. These experiences almost convinced Simons to leave the town, something she believes her neighbors likely would have celebrated.
Although the neighborhood in this story will remain unnamed for privacy reasons, this town, like most towns in the state, is experiencing an increase in diversity. According to data from the Connecticut Data Collaborative, the Diversity Index of Connecticut increased from 46 percent to 56 percent from 2010 to 2020; all but two towns in the state experienced an increase in diversity in 2020 compared to 2010. With this fact comes a crucial need to strive even harder for equity and inclusion in both the policies and practices that make up the homebuying and ongoing homeownership processes. Simons’ story offers a glimpse into what could happen as neighborhoods begin to integrate as a result of increased diversity in U.S. Whereas historically, predominantly white neighborhoods used white flight to combat the reality of racial integrated neighborhoods, could racial hazing become a major tactic to maintain the status quo?
Moving Forward, Policy Considerations
To be sure, there are larger, systemic issues at play for Black people in the homebuying process, from implicit bias during the appraisal process to challenges securing a fair mortgage. The historical gaps in wealth and access to desirable neighborhoods and services topics are explored in a larger Partnership for Strong Communities’ report, “Building a More Equitable Homebuying System.” However, focusing only on combating institutional forms of racism paints the unrealistic picture that if Black people can triumph over all the discrimination in the process of financing and purchasing a home, their experience with racism in the pursuit of homeownership will end. As Simons’ story illustrates, the battle is far larger than that.
There are some possible policy implications, however. Policymakers should work to preserve affordability in neighborhoods that are already integrated and to support aspiring homeowners purchasing a home in a community of their choice. The homeowner in this story searched for a home in Hartford for about two years. She was discouraged because she could not afford many of the homes, and those that she was able to afford would require her to do extensive renovations that she could just not afford.
Policymakers could create or expand existing low-cost rehabilitation programs focused on city neighborhoods. Downpayment assistance grants targeted to Black homeowners can reduce mortgage payments and sometimes eliminate the need for private mortgage insurance, preserving more of the homebuyer’s monthly earnings for home maintenance and repair.
Being a Black homeowner in a predominantly white neighborhood comes with an additional set of challenges and experiences to navigate, and our steps toward equity have not been sufficient. The kind of behavior exhibited by the neighbors in Simons’ experience enforces racial segregation in ways that policy does not.