Blacks were excluded from the housing market for decades. Now this Richmond man is working to change that.

Posted at 5:25 PM, Feb 13, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-13 17:25:52-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- With affordable housing scarce in many cities across the country, including here in and around Richmond, Virginia, well-established urban neighborhoods are changing as prices rise and longtime residents struggle to keep up. In Richmond, you can see it happening in Church Hill, Jackson Ward, and Fulton.

But one Richmond man is bucking the tide of both historical and current trends to help keep families in their homes.

Damon Harris is on a mission.

Teal House, Harris' nonprofit, is trying to reverse 100 years of history that has made owning a home so challenging for low-income families, especially African-American families.

"Teal House company has been working to reduce the negative impacts of gentrification and slow down the displacement of people," said Harris.

Teal House

Harris points out that the government's so-called "redlining" guidelines to banks in the 1930s, which told them what neighborhoods to avoid as far as offering mortgage loans, was part of decades of exclusion for potential African-American homeowners.

"[What you see now] is a direct reflection of what happened in the '30s and '40s and '50s and '60s," Harris said. "The reflection of that is the wealth gap, the gap in access to opportunity, whether that was insurance, whether that was jobs, whether that was health care. All those toxic inequalities find themselves in our zip code, and they're housed in our zip code. So when we see the homeless rates, when we see the Black poverty rates, when we see the wealth gaps, [understand that] the wealth gap didn't happen today. The wealth gap started when they created the mortgage system. It started when we were captive. It started then. And now when we walk these streets and we see our families in crisis, that's not just a today problem."

That, he said, is what Teal House is working to overcome.

"We felt like there were gaps in access to real estate," Harris said. "And it wasn't just buying. Education was part of it. It was having access to credit. And it was also understanding where you could go, where you could live, and what a house represented. So we felt the reason for the disparity is because there are too many gaps in the experience of homeownership."

Teal House offers seminars on all the aspects of buying a home.

Harris said his model is simple:

  • Buy a modest house that needs work in a traditionally African-American neighborhood in Richmond
  • Fix it up
  • Then educate a family in need to find a way to buy it from him

"If we buy it ourselves, we can control how we use it," said Harris. "We don't have to worry about a bank. And that's good and bad because sometimes I run out of money."
There are also times when Harris has had to put a current house project up for emergency use.

"This house has been a shelter for three years," Harris said, gesturing at his current project in Fulton. "It's a place where people could go and not have to worry about rent. But because they didn't have to worry about rent, that meant I wasn't making any money. And I have other units like this throughout the city where people can stay for 12 months without having to worry about rent. We don't evict, we support, and we uplift."

Teal House

Harris said as an economic model it may be flawed, but as a demographic one, it has advantages over other government or non-profit homebuying programs.

"I don't have time to wait for a process to work, because families are disappearing," he said. "So it may not be the best business model, but it works. We've been doing it for 10 years. We placed 65 first-time home buyers, and this month alone, we've housed nine people in shelters and hotel rooms for three days a piece."

"Right here in the root and the home of the Confederacy, the decks were stacked against Black homeowners," Tom Fitzpatrick, the Executive Director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal, or HOME, said.

He said the 'deck-stacking' which motivates Damon Harris, is not just a thing of the past.

"When you look at the percentage of Black households that own their own homes, and the percentage of white households that own their own homes, and you look at what that looked like in 1968, when the Fair Housing Act was passed, that said, 'no more discrimination in housing,' and what that looks like now, you'll see that that gap has grown, not shrunk in the last 50 years," Fitzpatrick said.

Teal House
Tom Fitzpatrick with Housing Opportunities Made Equal

Fitzpatrick pointed out that in 1970, 64% of white residents owned their homes in Virginia, while only 52% of Black families did, a nearly 13% difference.

In 2020, that gap had grown to 24%.

He said to change that, public policy must change, especially when rising prices mean higher taxes and longtime homeowners may need tax relief or a loan for upkeep.

"One of the factors that contributes to the problem, are families who bought their houses and understood what their finances were going to look like, but then did not anticipate rapid growth in the neighborhoods, which has now contributed to increases in tax burdens," said Fitzpatrick. "And so one of the solutions could be targeted tax relief for long-term occupants and long-term homeowners who have lived in those neighborhoods, have contributed to the vibrancy of those neighborhoods, and now are being priced out because of their taxes."

That would keep them from being forced to sell, especially to an out-of-town investor, which Fitzpatrick said is happening all over.

"In certain neighborhoods, more than 30% of the houses that were sold, were sold from owner-occupied to LLC," Fitzpatrick said. "When I say 'LLC,' they're being bought by corporations. And those corporations aren't based in Richmond most of the time."

Crucially, when you rent from a distant owner or investor, you're not likely to get any kind of a grace period when you're struggling to pay your rent on time, because your landlord doesn't know you.

"Now we have corporate policies that are saying, 'if you don't get that rent in within five days, we're going to automatically start that eviction process,'" Fitzpatrick said.

Fitzpatrick said while you might not be worried about dealing with a predatory landlord or getting a loan, we all do better when housing is truly open to all income levels.

"A healthy, safe community, a healthy, safe city, requires everyone to be housed comfortably, safely, affordably," he said. "And if we think that housing is a human right, which we absolutely do here at HOME, then it should matter to everybody that everyone can be housed in a safe place. So that's absolutely the first reason why it matters to folks."

"When a housing market gets constrained, usually it's those that have historically not had the same access to housing that feel it first, but then it compounds itself. Then it might be a college kid, who comes back to Richmond and is trying to find a place to live near their parents, and it's that much harder for them to find something that's affordable, that's accessible. It might be that workers that are trying to serve folks at their local restaurants or grocery stores or coffee shops are having to commute 45 minutes or an hour to get to where those are located."

For Harris, any help from the city he loves, whether it's tax abatement or access to capital for maintenance, would go a long way.

"I don't believe in stopping people," Harris said. "I do believe the city and our local government can create rules and regulations because just like how you can't charge anything you want for gas and milk when there's a hurricane, you shouldn't be able to charge what you want at all times [in housing]. We're in a storm right now with housing."

If you would like to support Teal House or find out more about their housing seminars, just click here.

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