James B. Nutter, Sr. was many things — a philanthropist, a liberal Democrat, a behind-the-scenes political activist with lots of money to give.
Mostly, though, he was a mortgage lender. He made his fortune helping people buy homes.
And he worked to make sure those loans would be available to qualified buyers, regardless of skin color. The company loaned money for homes in older, poorer neighborhoods years before the Fair Housing Act became law.
He made sure company-owned apartments were open to all renters, white or black. In 2012, he was honored by the Kansas City chapter of the NAACP for his work on civil rights.
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So we can guess that Nutter would have been saddened and distressed by the news — published just days after his death — that home ownership among African-Americans has plummeted in Kansas City over the past 10 years.
In 2015, only 37.7 percent of African-Americans in Kansas City owned their homes. Whites in Kansas City own homes at nearly twice that rate.
Nationally, the disparity between whites and blacks owning homes has reached its largest gap in 70 years.
There are many reasons for the slump in African-American home ownership. Higher unemployment and lower wages are two factors. Low credit ratings and a lack of assets for many families are also problems.
Down payments are hard to assemble. Affordable housing stock is hard to find.
But lending is also an issue. Not only do African-Americans apply for fewer home loans than whites in Kansas City, but banks and lenders deny those loans twice as often as they do for white applicants.
Worse, “there are no current efforts in the region to address these disparate rates of loan denials,” a study from the Mid-America Regional Council concluded.
The results are clear: Low-income Kansas Citians are renting their homes, not buying. In a 2015 report, the Census Bureau said 47 percent of Kansas City’s housing stock is renter-occupied. The national average is 36 percent.
Studies show nearly 59 percent of black households in Kansas City rent. Only 28 percent of whites live in rented homes.
Renting is an important option for younger workers and their families, and for those truly unable to afford a mortgage payment. Leasing a residence is popular with Kansas Citians who move frequently.
But neighborhoods formed around aging rental homes, often maintained by absentee landlords, can lead to vacancies and unsafe conditions.
Conversely, some studies suggest, home ownership can lead to better schools and healthier residents. It can help families build wealth.
Home ownership isn’t for everyone. But we believe Kansas City should do much more to encourage home ownership in older neighborhoods, including offering tax incentives. It must steer public banking business to institutions that promise to fund urban mortgages.
A city that spends millions on hotels and streetcars can do more to help African-Americans own their homes. We’re confident James B. Nutter Sr. would agree.