Homebuying as a single Black woman
I have always had difficult relationships with apartments. Knowing that I would be moving on eventually, or that the rent could spike and displace me, I often hesitated to decorate or make the space feel like mine. Not until the country started locking down last spring — when millions began to panic about looming rent deadlines as paycheques dried up and many of us mulled the ethics of landlords — did I seriously consider the homebuying process.
It is enshrined in our society that homes are for married couples to one day fill with their kids. As a single Black woman disenchanted by both of those prospects, I don't see much in our media landscape about people who want to build wealth without waiting for partnership. With guidance from my mom, who bought her first house as a single mom when I was about 8, I set multiple Zillow alerts throughout New Orleans, a city I had always wanted to live in.
When I told people I was interested in homeownership, everyone said saving up the cash for the down payment is the hardest part — given that a bank approves you for a mortgage in the first place, that is. The homeownership gap between Black and White people is wider today than it was when the Federal Housing Administration was established in 1934. Tangible horror stories are etched in my mind, such as the recent Black couple in California whose home was appraised for $500,000 higher when they had a White friend stage the house as if it were hers. If this happened to me, would I even know? Is there anything I could even do?
Even with my mom's help, the process introduced many unknowns. Some were financial; others were driven by a sense of suspended paranoia about whether I would be physically safe on my own. As a child, whenever my mom and I pulled into our driveway late at night, I got in the habit of getting to our front door as fast as I could, not necessarily because I believed we were in imminent danger, but in preparation for the day I might be. Girls are taught from the moment we can comprehend danger to look for it, assume it’s lurking — anticipate it, even.
In some ways, the homebuying process felt like that race from that driveway to the front door — except now I’m trying to outrun entire systems designed to harm people like me.
Initially, I secured preapproval for a condo. It felt like a natural transition from apartment living. Plus, there would be no yard work — there was no way I was ever going to buy a lawnmower, let alone use one. But I soon learnt condos require a lot more cash on hand. What’s more: z lot of New Orleans condos were in majority-White neighbourhoods. What if I wanted to have a bunch of friends over post-pandemic to blast music and make unapologetically loud noise?
We can all point to well-worn examples of White people calling the police on Black folks for no reason at all, feeling entitled to regulate our joy or assuming we don’t belong in their environs in the first place. We know too well the ultimate price many Black people have paid for interacting with the police.
Reporting on the criminal-legal system has made me acutely aware of how I may be killed in the very place that contains the contents of my life. A police officer shot Atatiana Jefferson to death when she was at home playing with her nephew. Breonna Taylor had been asleep in her bed moments before she was fatally shot by police.
Ultimately, I decided on a new-build with space for a home office and a covered deck in the Seventh Ward of New Orleans, a predominantly Black neighbourhood undergoing the earliest phases of gentrification. Because of the pandemic, I put in an offer before I had ever even seen the house in person. The seller wanted it out of his portfolio, my real estate agent told me, and in turn, I got a really good deal.
When I got the keys on closing day, my neighbours started coming by to greet me. An older Black man who drives a red pick-up truck was ecstatic to know his new neighbour was a Black woman, which he quickly related to our other neighbours. He was the one who helped me find a handyman — another neighbour — when I returned weeks after closing to actually move in and realised someone had broken into the vacant home. “I would’ve put my dogs in the yard if you had told me you were going to be away,” the neighbour said.
I got an alarm system the same day, and always kept my phone close to check the app on the rare occasion I left the house to get groceries or walk my dog. Months later, despite my opposition to the technology, a video doorbell would follow, as would watching the TV on the lowest volume so I could listen for outdoor noises that might signal danger. I stopped sleeping through the night, awaking at 2am or 3am, remaining on alert until the sun came up. When I did sleep, I was lulled there by either envisioning escape routes or wondering if I should get a side job to meet the increasing load of my bills.
"This is a bad neighbourhood — you need to get a gun," a friend warned, one of multiple who would. I'm not opposed to firearms, but the prospect of learning to shoot one, let alone use one, scares me even more.
I sometimes wonder if I had been able to house-shop in person, whether I would have picked my house after all, or any home, period. While my mortgage is similar to rent prices in New Orleans, my overall expenses have increased significantly. Not to mention, I felt more carefree as a renter. Sometimes I miss the sense of security and the social contract that comes with sharing a building. But when I’m really honest about my time renting in other cities, this social contract simply meant that we would not double-park or leave trash in the hallways, not necessarily that any of my neighbours actually cared for each other — or had ever spoken.
As a homeowner, and a single one at that, I’m responsible for everything, and I anticipated having to navigate plumbing issues, upgrades, pest and termite control. But I never knew how it would test my understanding of how humans protect and harm each other and what it means to feel safe. This year has been a process of learning the hard lesson that no one is coming to save me and also unlearning the false narratives around what makes a community “good” or “safe”.
The best people live in this “bad” neighbourhood, where children greet me by name after school and teenagers let me know when their parents are grilling oysters for sale. It’s a place where folks offer their generators after a hurricane knocks the power out, and where grandmothers chat me up for hours. Here, I will never need that lawnmower after all, as multiple folks always offer to come by and cut the grass for a handful of cash.
As I approach the first anniversary of owning a home with beautiful hardwood floors I’ve lined with happy and sad tears, I am starting to feel safer here — both to keep decorating and to get a good night's sleep.
I’m starting to feel at home.
• Ko Bragg is an editor at Scalawag magazine and former reporter at the 19th