Hoping to address the racial gap in Seattle homeownership, nonprofit lender HomeSight Washington launched a financial assistance program in November to give a leg up to Black residents looking to buy their first home. 

Called the Sam Smith “Hi Neighbor” Fund, named after the Washington state representative who championed ending racial housing discrimination, the program gives homeowners access to a $12,000 low-interest loan to help with a down payment. 

Payment on the Sam Smith loan, which accrues interest at a 3% rate annually, isn’t due for 30 years unless the property is sold or refinanced, though homeowners can pay off the loan earlier without penalty. Money paid back to HomeSight returns to the fund for future purchasers. HomeSight also runs a separate down payment assistance program that offers homebuyers who are Black, Indigenous and people of color a $10,000 zero-interest loan.

But since it launched last winter, few families have been able to take advantage of the support, according to the nonprofit lender. Only seven families have bought a home using the Sam Smith assistance program, said executive director Darryl Smith, with about $211,000 in funding still available for potential homebuyers.

“What we’re running into is a really challenging real estate market,” Smith said. “We’d love to be able to help more people, but we need the market to provide housing people can afford.” 

Even with a cooling real estate market, individuals and families already struggling in the Seattle and Puget Sound region simply can’t afford rising home prices, Smith said. 

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Last month, the median single-family home in King County sold for $899,999, according to recent data from the Northwest Multiple Listing Service. The median single-family home in Snohomish County sold for $749,999, in Pierce County for $555,000, and in Kitsap County for $550,000. 

It’s a situation that prompted HomeSight officials this month to increase the down payment assistance loan program through the Sam Smith Fund to $20,000 to make families more competitive in the housing market, Smith said. 

“What we’ve been seeing is staggering: the jump in real estate prices, the gap between what people can make and afford, and the prices,” Smith said. 

The Black homeownership rate in Washington is lower today than it was in 1968, when the Fair Housing Act was passed, banning housing discrimination based on race, color, religion and national origin. 

About 1 in 3 Black people in the state own a home, according to recent U.S. Census Bureau data, compared with about 2 in 3 white people. In Seattle, about 26% of Black residents own a home; Asian American, Latino and Native American residents also own homes at lower rates compared with white residents. 

Discriminatory housing policies and decades of racial redlining blocked residents of color from pathways to homeownership, a cornerstone method of building wealth in the U.S. 

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Today, the persistent racial disparity in homeownership forces people to “stay in the poverty cycle,” said Rosa Berhe, who received assistance through the Sam Smith Fund to purchase a home this year. 

Seattle’s residential real estate industry is talking about race and wrestling with some history

Berhe grew up in West Seattle with six siblings in public housing; her mother immigrated from Eritrea in the 1980s. While her mother had always dreamed of owning a home, it never seemed “in the realm of possibility,” Berhe said. 

In 2016, Berhe and her mother began house-hunting together when it became clear her mother wouldn’t be able to buy a home on her own. Even so, the majority of homes were out of their price range. At the time, Berhe was working part-time at a gym while attending college, and her mother was a janitor and paid caregiver. 

So they kept saving. Berhe’s family weathered job changes and pandemic-related financial troubles. It wouldn’t be until June 2021, once Berhe began to work closely with HomeSight advisers, that homeownership was within reach, she said. 

After accumulating a little over $74,000 for a down payment, she and her mother got preapproved in March. They began the hunt, equipped with extra funding from HomeSight. 

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“We kept getting outbid; we were settling a lot. These homes were going so fast, you get in a desperate mindset,” Berhe said. 

Eventually, they closed on a $600,000 home in Des Moines in May, moving in with three of Berhe’s siblings. 

Becoming a homeowner has been life-changing, Berhe said. Her family no longer fears getting kicked out of rental housing, and Berhe can see herself opening a small business using the equity from her home. Without the extra help from HomeSight, Berhe said she’s unsure whether she would have been able to purchase a home. 

“Maybe in a few years from now, but who knows what it’ll be like when homes skyrocket even more,” Berhe said. 

Recently, a slew of housing advocacy groups, lenders and real estate companies in Washington have launched efforts to close the gap in homeownership among Black residents. In March, JPMorgan Chase announced it would direct nearly $2 million toward a Black homeownership initiative organized by the Seattle Foundation’s Civic Commons

The Washington Department of Commerce is set to release a report in the coming weeks evaluating state-funded down payment assistance programs, as well as investigating barriers preventing people of color from accessing credit and loans to purchase a home.