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Lenders shun the city’s low-priced properties, making it hard for Black residents to access homeownership. The city of nearly 700,000 saw barely 1,700 mortgages made last year.

By Ben Eisen | Photography and Video by Brian Day for The Wall Street Journal
Oct. 29, 2020 11:10 am ET

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DETROIT—Alter Road runs northwest along this city’s border. To the east is Grosse Pointe Park, an upscale suburb dotted with grand old mansions built in the auto industry’s heyday. To the west is the city of Detroit, lined with abandoned houses and empty lots.

On the east side of the street, getting a mortgage to buy a home is a breeze. On the west side, it is hardly worth trying.

Detroit is making a comeback after years of decline that led to a bankruptcy filing in 2013. But large swaths of the city are left behind, starved of the housing credit needed to revive them. No purchase mortgages were made last year in almost a third of Detroit’s census tracts, and fewer than five each in another third, according to data from LendingPatterns.com, a mortgage-data analysis tool.

The impact runs disproportionately along racial lines in the majority Black city. Detroit’s Black residents are largely shut out of access to financing, making it tougher to attain homeownership, the key to building wealth for most Americans.

Nonprofits, governments and corporations are trying to channel money back into the city’s neighborhoods. But making mortgages in Detroit is a convoluted task. The dearth of credit is largely a consequence of battered property values plus a commercial reality that depresses them further: Lenders can’t earn money on tiny mortgages, so they don’t make them.

Vacant properties in Detroit.

Unfinanceable houses then go unsold, and their value sags still more. In Detroit, entire neighborhoods are trapped in this cycle of languishing property values and decay, their residents unable to access the tools needed to break it. The average home is worth roughly $400,000 in Grosse Pointe Park. Across Alter Road in Detroit, entire blocks could sell for less.

“Detroit is a hyperbolic example of the ways that systems can fail in terms of housing,” said Laura Grannemann, who oversees philanthropic work at the parent company of Quicken Loans Inc., which is the nation’s largest mortgage lender by dollar amount lent and is based in Detroit.

Less than a quarter of Detroit home sales were financed by mortgage loans last year, the smallest share in the 50 biggest U.S. cities, according to an analysis by Attom Data Solutions, a property-information provider.

For the city’s residents, it is a familiar story, now with a new dynamic. In neighborhoods where racist redlining policies once made it nearly impossible for Black Americans to get a mortgage, access to affordable credit and the wealth-building potential of homeownership remain elusive.

A view over Kercheval Avenue in Detroit.
The mortgages that are made inside Detroit’s borders go disproportionately to white borrowers. Whites, who make up less than 10% of the city’s population but often are concentrated in areas like downtown where investment in reviving property values, obtained 39% of mortgages last year. Black people make up roughly 80% of the population and got 51% of the city’s mortgages.

A failure to revitalize the city beyond its center is an obstacle to Detroit’s ambitious comeback plans. The money flowing toward reviving Detroit misses many of its neighborhoods, residents say. As a result, the city is home to fancy condo developments in some places and dilapidated houses in others.

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Harvey Yan


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