Interview with Laurie Benner, Associate Vice President of Programs

We interviewed CCCSMD Board Member Laurie Benner, of National Fair Housing Alliance, on her involvement in a new initiative, Keys Unlock Dreams.

What is the Keys Unlock Dreams initiative and what is your role in the program?

The Keys Unlock Dreams initiative is a three-year, 10-city initiative designed to remove structural and other barriers to homeownership and to expand fair housing opportunities for underserved groups. We want to make sure that everyone has equitable access to the amenities they need to lead successful, healthy, financially secure lives. The initiative hopes to achieve five goals:

  • Remove structural barriers that perpetuate racial inequality;
  • Expand affordable and fair housing options;
  • Prevent an unbalanced recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic;
  • Empower consumers and stakeholders with critical information and resources, and
  • Help close the racial wealth and homeownership gaps.

Keys Unlock Dreams will focus on research, advocacy and policy, programs and products, education and outreach in targeted markets: Columbus (OH), Memphis, Detroit, Atlanta, Baltimore, Houston, New Orleans, Oakland, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington DC. With increased funding, we’re open to partnering in additional cities.

As Associate Vice President of Programs, my role is to manage all aspects of the initiative and ensure we’re working in collaboration with local, state, and federal partners. Partnerships with consumer-centered organizations such as CCCSMD are crucial to our success in reaching ambitious milestones related to fair housing, housing opportunity, and economic empowerment.

One of the key goals of the Keys Unlock Dreams initiative is to help close the racial wealth and homeownership gaps.  What are the most important things you would want us to know about the severity of these gaps?

 There are powerful and disheartening statistics related to these issues. The homeownership gap is even larger now than it was in 1968 when the Fair Housing Act was passed. Not one of the 100 U.S. cities with large Black populations have closed the gap. By some measurements, White households have more than eight times the wealth of Black households and five times the wealth of Latino households. The reasons for these ongoing disparities are complex, but it’s important to understand that decades of laws and policies designed specifically to deny opportunity to people of color still have detrimental impacts today. In fact, many of the now-illegal practices have been replaced with modern-day discriminatory behaviors in home appraisals, community investments, and gaps in access to healthcare, education, transportation, employment, credit and banking, and technology. The reason I highlight these topics is that there is an inaccurate perception that inequality is a thing of the past when in reality, it continues to worsen and impede economic progress for both individuals and families and for the country as a whole.

Another goal of the initiative relates to the connection between health and housing. Can you talk more about that?

The COVID-19 pandemic and economic crisis have laid bare the structural inequities and challenges too many people face when it comes to securing safe and affordable housing. It also highlighted the nexus between housing stability and health as people were encouraged, and even mandated, to stay at home. The pandemic revealed stark disparities in who is contracting and dying from the virus and how those disparate outcomes are linked to housing security, place-based opportunities, and other structural barriers. We are keenly focused on ensuring that economic recovery efforts are distributed equitably – something that did not occur in the aftermath of the housing crisis of 2008.

One of Keys Unlock Dreams’ areas of focus is Education and Outreach.  Who are your target audiences for education and outreach? And considering the constraints of COVID-19, what are the strategies for reaching your target audience?

Our audience for education and outreach includes both the housing industry and consumers. We want to partner with local organizations, government, and health institutions in each of the key cities, as well as state and national groups, to learn from one another and share research. The initiative relies on those relationships to ensure we are addressing the most pressing needs in neighborhoods and communities. As far as consumer outreach, our goal is to support prospective homebuyers and arm them with the knowledge and resources they need to prepare themselves for sustainable homeownership.

The COVID-19 pandemic certainly changed the landscape of outreach strategy, but things are starting to shift once again. I anticipate that we’ll employ both virtual and place-based venues. Even after it’s deemed safe to have sizable gatherings, there will be webinar and video-based learning opportunities leading up to the in-person events. Nothing can replace the energy and relationships that come from face-to-face interaction, but we must reamin mindful and inclusive as well as sensitive to people’s comfort levels and safety.

What are some recommended resources that consumers can read or listen to in order to become more educated on the issues of racial wealth and homeownership gaps?

I am an avid consumer of books, podcasts, and shows on these subjects. Here are a few of my favorites:

Books:

The Color of Law, by Richard Rothstein

Race for Profit, by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

Not in My Neighborhood, by Anthony Pietila

Evicted, by Matthew Desmond

Brave New Home, by Diana Lind

American Apartheid, by Douglas S. Massey

The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson

Videos:

Housing Segregation and Redlining in America: A Short Story (NPR),” YouTube (Warning: one instance of explicit language in the first 10 seconds)

13th,” Netflix

Long Island Divided,” Newsday

Systemic Racism Explained,” Act.tv

Amend: The Fight for America,” Netflix

Seven Days,” YouTube

The Banker,” Apple TV

Grab the Key,” YouTube

What can all of us do to support the Keys Unlock Dreams initiative goals?

Keys Unlock Dreams is here to support consumers, not the other way around, but I would encourage everyone who is interested in buying a home to spend some time educating themselves. Learn about the process, learn about credit and finance, use a realtor, and familiarize yourself with fair housing laws. It can be overwhelming, but there are valuable organizations such as nonprofit credit and housing counseling agencies to help. Attending a HUD-approved homebuyer education class is a win-win because you not only learn about the buying process, but you also become eligible to take advantage of down payment and closing cost assistance programs. Finally, don’t be afraid to speak up if you feel that you’ve experienced discrimination from a real estate agent, lender, home seller, or landlord/leasing agent. Holding these professionals accountable for bad behavior is essential to the betterment of the industry and the next generation of home buyers.

For those who want to learn more or partner with us, please visit the Keys Unlock Dreams website and check out the resources housed there. As our research is completed in each city, we’ll be posting comprehensive reports and announcing events and opportunities for local and national engagement. The website is designed to support aspiring homebuyers and include information for existing homeowners struggling due to financial hardship from the pandemic. The National Fair Housing Alliance has an extensive network of housing-related partnerships and we’re happy to make connections to anyone who needs assistance.