Vegas Realtor on a mission to close the homeownership gap for Black Americans

Legacy Home Loans/Courtesy

Legacy Home Loans President Ben Slayton

There were no Black members of what was known as the National Association of Real Estate Boards in the 1960s.

Ben Slayton, a Southern California Black man in his early 20s wanting to break into the industry, said he needed a Realtor sponsor to be allowed into organization, which is now the National Association of Realtors. Being part of the group was the only way to survive in the profession because the board had all of the home listings, he explained.

Never accepting no for an answer, Slayton said he solicited hundreds of potential sponsors before finally finding a white man to agree to vouch for him so he could become one of the country’s first Black Realtors.

It was the type of drive and determination that Slayton, now 77 and living in the Summerlin area of Las Vegas, would put on display for decades in the industry.

Nearly 60 years after breaking that barrier, Slayton still works to chip away at outdated racial disparities within the real estate industry, now as president of Las Vegas-based Legacy Home Loans.

Founded a little over three years ago, Legacy, a division of Panorama Mortgage Group, was created with a singular goal in mind—to “empower the Black community with a focus on building sustainable wealth through homeownership.”

Though the company has enjoyed early success, its mission is no easy task.

According to the latest numbers put out by the U.S. Census Bureau, the homeownership rate for Blacks was just 44%, a little more than 30 percentage points lower than the rate for white Americans.

In the Las Vegas metropolitan area, according the bureau’s most recent figures from 2019, the homeownership rate for Blacks is just 28%, 33 points lower than the area’s white population.

“My mission is to try to close that gap,” Slayton said. “But we can’t close that gap by ourselves. It has to happen throughout the mortgage and banking industry. It takes a village.”

Legacy has nine employees in Las Vegas and close to 50 nationwide, with branch locations in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles, among others.

The decisions by policymakers to contribute to the homeownership gap that exists today can be traced back as far as slavery, Slayton said, though the groundwork for today’s gap came from strategies put forth in the 20th century.

“We weren’t able to own property during slavery, but it picked up again after World War II,” Slayton said. “The government decided that they would make homeownership available to veterans who came home from the war, however they gave it to the banks to guarantee those loans. The banks themselves had discriminatory practices, like redlining, that didn’t allow Blacks to become homeowners.”

Even before World War II veterans came home, the federal government had started to make it a practice to create maps to grade different neighborhoods and areas for real estate investment desirability.

Predictably, Black and immigrant-heavy areas were often outlined in red ink on maps, thereby serving as a dog whistle for banks and real estate professionals.

Selena Williams, a 50-year-old Black woman who spent more than 20 years in the hospitality industry, recently started a new career with Legacy Home Loans.

Williams said she’s passionate about Legacy's mission, but that she didn’t realize how much of a gap there was in homeownership between whites and Blacks until adulthood.

“When I was growing up, just outside of Washington, D.C., my parents only owned homes,” Williams said. “My parents paid off four homes, and I just assumed that’s what people did. It wasn’t until later in life, when I became friends with many of my white co-workers, and saw many of my Black friends struggling, that I noticed what a huge disparity there was.”

Williams said she brings up the importance of homeownership to her circle of influence—her daughter graduated from college two years ago and already owns a home—but added that she thinks there’s an educational disconnect in the Black community about how generational wealth is accumulated.

As Slayton points out, however, there’s more at play than just a lack of education.

According to the National Association of Real Estate Brokers, Blacks are “more than twice as likely to have their mortgage applications denied” and often pay higher interest rates for FHA loans when they are approved.

Slayton didn’t hesitate offering up his answer when asked whether he thought enough was being done today to level the playing field in the mortgage industry.

“Absolutely not,” Slayton said. “If 80% of the mortgage-lending industry decided they would increase Black homeownership by at least 10% per year, compounded, the gap would be closed in 10 years. But that’s a commitment that the industry itself has to make, and I don’t see that being made any time soon.”

Though Slayton said Legacy is the only mortgage firm in the country focused solely on Black households, the company is making progress.

He said one of the firm’s goals is to lend $1 billion to Black homeowners by 2023. Today, it’s about halfway to that mark.

By comparison, Wells Fargo, one of the biggest lenders in the nation, originated just under $54 billion in mortgage loans in the fourth quarter of 2020 alone.

A local coalition dedicated to providing educational opportunities for Blacks interested in owning a home hosted the first of a series of virtual events late last month. The “Coalition to Make Homes Possible” is a collaboration between a number of organizations, including the NAREB, the Urban Chamber of Commerce and the city of Las Vegas.

The coalition is sponsored by Homie, a tech-based real estate company that recently entered into the Las Vegas market.

“We’re being intentional about our outreach to the Black community because of the decades of real estate discrimination that has prevented it from accessing homeownership,” said Elias Benjelloun of Homie. “Black families have been left out of the equation when it comes to the American dream of owning a home for decades. We know redlining provisions prevented Blacks from buying homes for generations.”

In a statement from early February, Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman said the coalition represented an “actionable plan” to give the homeownership gap “more than just lip service.”

Slayton, who was coaxed out of retirement in California to run Legacy Home Loans in Las Vegas, said he will remain hopeful that meaningful change will occur, though he doesn’t think it will come during his lifetime.

“There are biases in our industry, just like in our society, that will attempt to prevent change from happening,” Slayton said. “We’ve come a long ways since I wasn’t allowed to become a Realtor because of the color of my skin, but when you think that only four of every 10 Black families own the home they’re living in, and for white families it’s seven of 10, that’s a huge difference. I’m hopeful because I have to be. I can’t do what I do without hope that things will change.”

Business

This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.

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