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Amid hope, black homeowners struggle

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KAI RYSSDAL: The speech President Obama gave today was, in part, pretty sobering, coming as it did in the middle of the worst economic crisis in decades.

At the same time there was a can-do attitude about it. Mixed feelings might also be the order of the day for a lot of African Americans. Today’s a historic milestone.

But commentator Amelia Tyagi says the economy’s creating milestones of a different sort.

AMELIA TYAGI: Perhaps 2009 will be remembered as the most ironic year in African American history. On the one hand, we have our first African American president, a milestone of unprecedented importance.

And yet, 2009 may also go down in history as the year that more African Americans fell out of the middle class than any other time in our nation’s past. Best estimates are that African American homeowners are 2-1/2 times more likely to be in foreclosure than their white counterparts. At that rate, more than a million African American homeowners will lose their home in the next four years. That’s one in every five.

Why is the trouble so much worse for African Americans? Because they were specifically targeted by banks peddling dangerous subprime mortgages. When people applied for home mortgages, blacks were far more likely than whites to receive the high-cost loans.

And this isn’t just about credit scores and other assets. In fact, residents in high-income African American neighborhoods are now more likely to have a subprime mortgage than residents in low-income white neighborhoods.

Brandon Ethridge is a law student from a largely African American middle-class neighborhood outside Baltimore. He described a family on his block, two professionals who “came home from work one day and the lights had been turned out. A bank official was outside. They had to move their stuff out in the middle of the night.”

By the time a family loses their home, they have drained their bank account, ruined their credit score, and cashed out their retirement savings, all in a desperate attempt to save the home. For many, this is the end of the American dream.

Many in Brandon’s neighborhood are first-generation homeowners, victors in a hard-fought battle to climb up the economic ladder. In the swirl of the subprime crisis, African American homeownership rates are poised to lose an entire generation of progress in a few short years.

Brandon remarked, “No one thinks about this as a civil rights issue.”

But maybe we should.

RYSSDAL: Amelia Warren Tyagi is co-founder of Business Talent Group.

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