This real estate agent is on a mission to create 1,000 Black homeowners in Kansas City
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While the U.S. homeownership rate saw its biggest annual increase on record during the pandemic, the disparity between Black and white homeowners also grew. Some organizations in Kansas City are trying to change that.
Tenesia Brown was 15 years into a career in real estate before she found her true mission: create 1,000 Black homeowners in Kansas City’s urban core.
Five years ago, Brown owned a real estate business in Buckner, Missouri. Business was going well. Then, in 2017, she was diagnosed with two types of cancer. Fortunately, one of the diagnoses ended up being a mistake, but the experience caused Brown to do some soul searching.
“It was just like, ‘Wow, what do you want to be known for? You know, if I was to die today, what would someone say in my eulogy?’ And I was thinking, ‘That she likes to have fun,'” Brown said. “It wasn't a lot that I felt like that they could say. So my purpose was given to me.”
Around the same time as her diagnosis, Brown saw out of town developers trying to swallow one of the communities that raised her — Kansas City’s east side — where many residents are Black or brown renters. So she rebranded and opened Key’s Realty Group in the 3300 block of Linwood Boulevard with a strong focus on increasing Black homeownership rates in the urban core by turning long-time renters into first time buyers.
“I can help with gentrification because I just feel like the point is people just aren't taking advantage. They're not buying — but they're complaining,” said Brown. “So if I can help as many people who are living in these neighborhoods be able to buy and stay in these neighborhoods, then that's one problem solved.”
Stable housing has always been important to Brown. As a child, she and her mom moved more than a dozen times all around Kansas City’s east side.
“We probably moved about every three to six months and I've probably gone to almost every elementary school here in Kansas City,” said Brown. “It is pretty rough on a kid being the new kid everywhere you go and in every neighborhood.”
Turning long-time renters into first-time buyers
One of Brown’s success stories is Tae Yeager, who purchased her first home through Brown after years of renting and then decided to try real estate out for herself.
“I met Tenesia when she helped me buy my own personal house. So I think that's where my journey began,” she said. “We just kind of clicked when we were looking for my house. So once I got into my own home, I went to real estate class and then I got my license and I started working for Tenesia.”
Yeager is a mother of three, so owning a home and being able to pass it down to her kids is important to her. She said growing up, she didn’t see a lot of homeowners in her neighborhood and skills like financial literacy or homeownership weren't taught. Yeager was drawn to Brown because seeing Brown succeed and uplift her community as a Black woman was empowering.
“To be able to have that example who leads us, she's been through it, she's been through the same community and helping to bridge that gap to where, you know, ‘No, you can own that home. You don't have to rent for the rest of your life. You can leave that land for the next generation,’” said Yeager. “I think that representation is very important for all of us, because like I said, what was home ownership to us growing up? Nobody ever taught it to us.”
Yeager is one of ten kids and through Key’s, she’s been able to help two of her sisters purchase their first homes too. She said her favorite part of being a realtor is helping first time buyers.
“You get so many people who, you know, ‘I can’t do it, my credit is not there.’ And they sit down with that lender, like ‘Your credit's at a 640, what are you talking about? You can purchase a home,’” said Yeager. “So for them to get that pre-approval letter, for them to be able to find that house, close, get those keys. It's such a rewarding feeling. That, honestly, that is what the mission is. Making those non-believers, the people who are scared, you know, and then them actually going out and doing it.”
The state of Black homeownership
This focus on empowering Black homebuyers in the urban core has become increasingly important, particularly as the COVID pandemic laid bare the many inequities facing communities of color from health care to the workplace.
In 2020, while people were sheltering in place and COVID-19 was wreaking havoc on the economy, the housing market was booming. But, not for everyone. A recent study by the National Association of Realtors (NAR) found that while the U.S. homeownership rate saw its biggest annual increase on record, the disparity between Black and white homeowners grew. In fact, there are fewer Black homeowners now than a decade ago and the almost 30% gap between Black and white homeownership is bigger today than it was in the 60s.
The NAR study used data from the 2020 American Community Survey (which is conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau).
Jung Choi, a senior research associate for the Urban Institute, said because the 2020 Census responses were so greatly affected by the pandemic, it’s difficult to know how accurate a picture those numbers paint. Still, Choi said the gap between Black and white homeowners hovers consistently around 30% across all reports.
A lot of the barriers to Black homeowners, according to Choi, stem from racism and a lack of generational wealth among Black communities.
“Homeownership, as you know, transfers from parent to children … And one of the greatest barriers that Black households face when accessing home ownership is that they have a lack of wealth,” said Choi. “I think the most recent SCF, Survey of Consumer Finances data shows that Black households only hold one eighth of the wealth compared to the white households. So it's really difficult for them [Black homebuyers] to save up to down payment.”
Choi says the wealth gap, plus challenges like working with a bank and securing financing are some of the biggest reasons many Black families get stuck in a vicious cycle of renting and are unable to purchase a home.
That’s exactly what Ajia Morris, founder and CEO of the Kansas City-based Greenline Initiative, is trying to address. Morris said traditional financing and the underwriting process is based on historical data, therefore inherently racist, so her organization is one of several trying to change the home-buying process.
“We want to take those things out of determining credit worthiness, take those things out of determining what your interest rate will be,” said Morris. “Because that way you get a fair opportunity to access home ownership, especially coming from a low income community. It is slightly offensive to add an additional burden and cost on them for things they can't control.”
Like Key’s Realty, The Greenline Initiative wants to turn more Black renters in Kansas City into homeowners. Currently, they focus on renovating and then owner-financing homes in the urban core to sell them at or below appraisal value. Morris said this takes banks as a middle man out of the process and combats gentrification.
“It won't stop gentrification, but again, it will give my neighbors the opportunity to own the land that they're currently occupying. So as gentrification occurs, as property values appreciate, my neighbors can benefit from that experience as well,” she said. “They can benefit from the property values increasing as opposed to a non residential landlord benefiting and then selling.”
The Greenline Initiative also looks at different, non-traditional determining factors for prospective homebuyers, like how long a person has paid rent or been employed, instead of a credit score alone. They focus heavily on financial literacy, which is a big part of Key’s mission, too.
Brown hosts what she calls “walk-in Wednesdays” in the evenings weekly for anyone who has questions about buying a home to come in and get answers. She also hosts frequent networking events and seminars, like the bi-annual Kansas City Homes Bus tour, which shows people homes for sale in the urban core and connects them with lenders.
Looking beyond Kansas City
Earlier this year, Key’s Realty expanded. Brown opened an office in St. Louis. She says she’s focusing on the urban core there, too, and helping increase Black homeownership rates.
Brown thinks creating more Black homeowners can ultimately change the face of the city.
“Once you're stable, because you now own a property, it makes life a little easier. It takes stress off of you. It does a lot for not just you, but your entire family once you've been stabilized,” said Brown. “I believe that with the pride in home ownership and being invested in the community or in the block or in the neighborhood, then that kind of helps with stabilizing neighborhoods, which stabilizes cities and brings businesses to those areas. And it's just like a trickle down effect.”
It has been four years since Brown set her goal of 1,000 new Black homeowners in Kansas City. Brown said they are nearly halfway there, and when they hit that threshold, she’ll celebrate – then set her sights on another, bigger, better goal.