Bay Area church fights racism by raising money for down payments on homes
After the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2020, many Christians said they wanted to do something about systemic racism.
In Kensington, Calif., a church formed a study group — then took action.
White members of Arlington Community Church, United Church of Christ, listened to what would make a difference for their Black neighbors in California’s Bay Area. The answer: down payments for homes. In 2021, members started giving money for that purpose. They raised more from the community.
Their goal was $50,000. Their Black Wealth Builders’ Fund reached $225,000 by the end of 2021. It’s still receiving gifts. And now it’s lending money.
So far the fund has given out $105,000 in zero-interest loans.
The church’s website says this is no act of charity. A page about the fund calls it a “reparations project” meant to fight the causes of the wealth gap between Black and white people. It says the fund “is designed to help repair a small portion of the financial damage of racism and white supremacist policies — in particular, the longstanding barriers to Black home ownership that have existed in our East Bay communities.”
The Rev. Celestine Fields became Arlington’s pastor in 2022, after the program was well underway. She said it’s consistent with what she’s seen of members’ faith. “For them, the vision and the mission of this congregation is to be fully present in the world and not just to offer prayers,” Fields said. “Jesus has called this community to put its faith into action. This is part of that.”
‘All the historic sins’
How to fix the wealth gap between Black and white Americans — and otherwise repair the historic damage of racism — gets a lot of press. There’s a bill in Congress to create a commission to study it. Think tanks from the Brookings Institution to the National African-American Reparations Commission to the UN Human Rights Commission have weighed in on the matter.
Floyd’s murder was the catalyst that eventually led the Arlington church, situated about 11 miles north of Oakland, to focus on reparations. Susan Russell is one of the church members who got the ball rolling.
“Our church launched an anti-racist discussion group, as many did at that time,” Russell said. “We met several times and discussed how we wanted to become truly anti-racist, beyond discussion and reading. Two of us in the group — the other is Barry Cammer, a retired UCC minister and church member — decided to work on finding a reparations project that would make a systemic difference in the Black community here.
“Barry and I quickly began to focus on housing. In the very expensive Bay Area, owning a home is out of reach for many, and especially for our Black neighbors. All the historic sins of segregation, redlining and lack of access to capital have made the situation worse.”
Finding a partner
Russell and Cammer studied possible solutions for “several months,” she said. “We learned in our research that this last-mile issue of lack of a down payment stopped many people from progressing to home ownership.”
“Our church responded with enthusiasm” to the idea, she said. Originally called the “Black Homeownership Reparations Fund,” it would focus on home buyers in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. Fundraising began during Lent of 2021. “Although our church took the lead, many other local churches, large and small, contributed,” Russell said. They were:
- Alameda: First Congregational UCC
- Berkeley: First Congregational Church, UCC
- Berkeley: Berkeley Pilgrimage Foundation (affiliated with First Congregational)
- Berkeley: Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church
- Berkeley: Unitarian Universalist Church
- Danville: Danville Congregational Church, UCC
- El Cerrito: The Good Table UCC
- Los Altos: Foothills Congregational Church, UCC
- Orinda: Orinda Community Church, UCC
- Sebastapol: Community Church, UCC
Then came the question of how to administer the loans. “We considered managing the fund at the church but we decided we needed a partner to help us work with local organizations to identify potential homeowners, manage the loans and raise money,” she said.
For that role, the church chose the Richmond Community Foundation, which Russell described as “a leader in housing accessibility in the East Bay.” “They have proven to be an excellent partner,” she said. “For example, they landed a $50,000 donation from the California Association of Realtors.
How loans work
Loans range from $15,000 to $20,000, enough to help close a gap that otherwise would separate a buyer from a home. They don’t have to be paid back until the home is refinanced or sold.
Recipients all come from the community outside the church. “We are an older, almost entirely white church and many of us already own homes,” Russell said. The church and the foundation work with local organizations that serve the Black community to identify potential home buyers who could benefit from the fund.
Of 10 applicants so far, “six have completed the process and the lenders agreed to accept our funds,” Russell said. Five have closed on their purchases.
One of those sales was to Astrid Heim, an employee in the Bay Area’s biotech industry. “She analyzed her life and her finances, and at 35 years old she realized that buying a home would build a foundation for herself and her future family,” said Rosalind Mays Welch of RCF Connects, the program arm of the foundation that administers Arlington’s fund. Heim bought a three-bedroom condominium — and was grateful not only for the down-payment help, but also for the advice she received in the process.
Together with another agency, Richmond Neighborhood Housing Services, RCF Connects and Black Wealth Builders “provided a great education and helping hand to Astrid as a first-time home buyer drowning in an unfamiliar and often unfriendly process,” Welch said.
Though not the first in her family to buy a home, Heim is the first to do so on her own as a single woman. Her parents’ home, not incidentally, was destroyed in a Northern California wildfire, causing the parents to move out of state.
Welch said Heim noted that “the financial literacy one needs to purchase a large asset, like a home, is often not passed down from generation to generation.”
The three cooperating programs “all gave her information that is not often given to people who are first-time home buyers,” Welch said. “She emphasized that though her parents were homeowners themselves, the information she received through these three organizations was extremely helpful and vital to her successfully becoming a homeowner.”
The answer to guilt
Fields, Arlington’s first Black pastor, called the program “an excellent model for reparations in churches.” “I think it’s really speaking to people right now,” she said. Someone walked by the church recently, noticed a brochure about the Black Wealth Builders’ Fund and donated $10,000.
“I think that what’s happened since the murder of George Floyd opened people’s eyes and their minds and their hearts — and the pandemic revealed the inequity that was always there — I think that white people who are allies are ready to do something positive for change,” Fields said. “People can feel powerless, especially white people: ‘What can I do? I don’t know what to do. I know there are inequities, but I’m not going to give my house away. What am I supposed to do?’ This is the answer to that question.
“Guilt is a wasted emotion. People want to do something.”
‘Can’t sit around waiting’
Fields said connecting with and listening to the local community will be essential for any church wanting to do what Arlington has done. “I think it’s important for congregations that want to do this work to find Black folks to do the work with and to get their input and actually be in solidarity with the community.”
“This is part of the ministry of the church,” she said. “We can’t sit around waiting for the government to do something. We are called to do this work with the people in the trenches, in the struggle. Let’s start programs like this and put people in houses.”
“I’ve given a lot of thought to why this project has been so successful,” Russell said. “I think that many who sincerely want to become anti-racist struggle with what to do. Our fund offers something specific to do — donate to help our Black neighbors buy homes, opening the door to the generational wealth that should have been theirs long ago.”
This article was updated on Sept. 13, 2022, adding a list of local churches that donated to the Black Wealth Builders’ Fund, as reported by Arlington Community Church.
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