Closing The Wealth Gap: HBCU Couples Should Prioritize Two Homesteads Before Marriage

Owning a home is a keystone of wealth – both financial affluence and emotional security. – Suze Orman

Poor people know they are poor. Unfortunately, it is the African American working and middle class who do not know they are also poor. The problematic reality that because you can buy something does not mean you can afford it plagues much of African America’s working and middle class. These tend to be households who have higher education, higher incomes, and higher homeownership rates – but they also tend to have financial net worths that are just as poor as – well, the poor. Why? They tend to be more acutely indebted due to their education, home, car, and consumer poor, just as financially illiterate, and almost always just as asset poor as their poor counterparts in the African American community. However, any conversation about passive or investment income or financial health as a pillar in line with mental health and other priorities of a well functioning household is often met with angst or disgust. The prioritization of asset accumulation over consumption is met with more resistance than Americans against British taxation without representation – and we know how that ended. But not to worry, there seems to be no revolution brewing here (sarcasm). African American wealth accumulation continues to be an afterthought of the African American household. Upper middle class, affluent, rich, or wealthy being a thought of more as something for “others” and not ourselves. The achievement of degrees, a house, cars, and consumption is all we seem to believe life requires. Should times get tough, many within the community will tell you that a second job, a better paying job, or more education is more times than not the answer to a “better” life. Again, wealth and asset accumulation not so much.

How dire is the wealth situation for African America? Bloomberg recently reported that Black-White wealth gap has not budged in the past 40 plus years and is actually trending worse. McKinsey and Company report that nearly 20 percent of African American households have a negative net worth. The National Community Reinvestment Council’s report shows, “African Americans, who in many categories have the greatest gender economic equality, have the greatest gender wealth disparity though still having little wealth compared to Whites. Single Black men’s median wealth was $10,100, compared to Single Black women’s median wealth of $1,700.” An immense issue when one considers that the majority of African American households are headed up by single African American women. One would certainly suggest that because women are the load bearers for raising and providing for African American children and often extended family that this has also severely hampered their ability to accumulate wealth. An issue that is not as prevalent for African American men. None the less, it proves dire for the community as a whole that this is the case. Last but certainly not least (or all), there is the matter that African American homeownership has never breached above 50 percent which for the majority of families serves as the foundation that a lot of intergenerational wealth is built upon.

One of the general wedges to the wealth gap is asset ownership. Two-thirds of African American wealth according to Bloomberg is held in housing and very little in other asset classes like stocks in particular. This has presented an acute problem over the past 70 years as Bloomberg reports, “stocks have appreciated five times as much as housing prices.” However, the complexity of wealth without a conversation around income and disposable income which is income left over after expenses that can be used for savings and investing is vital to the conversation. African American median income is $45,870 according to Statista, the highest it has been in the past 30 years. The problem of course is that it remains the lowest of all four ethnic groups tracked (see graph below) with Latinos, European, and Asian Americans having median incomes of $55,321, $74,912, $94,903, respectively. Unfortunately, there is not a high enough savings rate that could truly overcome this lack of income. Despite the perception, African Americans are savers in line with their European American counterparts. Again, you can not catch up in a race running at the same speed as someone who is 100 yards ahead of you. This is the problem for African America. We are trying to save and invest at the same rate as those who have in most cases six times our wealth. So if home ownership is already our largest asset, then why are we suggesting that African American couples prioritize having two going into a marriage rather than one after they get married?

Every HBCU state except for Pennsylvania offers a homestead exemption. What is the homestead exemption? According to Investopedia, “The homestead exemption is a way to minimize property taxes for homeowners. It is also a legal provision offered in most states that helps shield a home from some creditors following the death of a homeowner’s spouse or the declaration of bankruptcy. The homestead tax exemption can provide surviving spouses with ongoing property tax relief, which is done on a graduated scale so that homes with lower assessed values benefit the most. The homestead exemption is helpful since it is designed to provide both physical shelter and financial protection, which can block the forced sale of a primary residence.” A person or couple can only have one homestead at a time, unless they both enter into the marriage with their own homestead. At which point, both parties are allowed to retain their individual homesteads. This means both properties will be taxed at a reduced rate creating more disposable income. Something they would not be able to do if they simply purchased a second home later in the marriage. What is that second homestead worth potentially?

According to Mortgage Calculator, the average annual property taxes in the United States is approximately $3,800. The homestead exemption typically saves approximately $500 off of that tax bill. That $500 invested annually for 30 years at 8 percent return is worth over an extra $60,000 to a household and that is just the tax savings reinvested. Naturally, the second homestead would be rented out by the couple and used to generate additional passive income. Assuming the couple could generate a profit of $200 per month or $2,400 annually off that second property, they now have $2,900 to invest annually which over the course of 30 years at 8 percent return is worth over $350,000. We have not even added on the building of the equity from appreciation or the extremely low interest rates that accompany homestead properties versus traditional investment properties. Banks are far more likely to see a homestead property as a lower risk than investment properties which they believe a borrower is more likely to walk away from than those that are homesteaded. Equity borrowed from the home could be used to reduce the households general tax bill overall further, leveraged to purchase non-homestead investment properties, or simply borrowed and used to invest in the stock market and because it is seen as “debt” does not carry tax liability on it. In other words, if a couple borrows $50,000 of equity out of their homestead property and make $10,000 on it, then they would only be paying taxes on the $10,000 but you still actually have $60,000 at your disposal. Whereas if you saved $50,000 and then made $10,000 on it, then you would be paying taxes on the entire $60,000. That almost $3,000 per year that would be coming from that property would also be an increase of 6 percent on the African American median income.

In the end of it all, assets and income go hand in hand. The more assets a family has the more income they produce and vice versa. In some ways, it is the epitome of the chicken and the egg conversation. For most African Americans, whom we see are highly unlikely to receive inheritance (see graph above) it becomes all about their family’s initial income and the race to acquire assets. Grievously, far too many African American families get the income and never convert it into assets. Taking advantage of prioritizing this little loophole can provide a family an extra $1 million in asset value and $80,000 in passive income if properly managed. An amount that currently would equal almost two times the African American median income. It is these small decisions that could have a monumental impact on the future of African American wealth and the closing of the wealth gap. In order for this to work as part of an overall strategy, HBCU alumni must prioritize having a sense of urgency about their finances and then be strategic about wealth and asset accumulation before tying the knot.

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