Real Estate

Miami Is the Hardest Place in America to Get a Mortgage, Especially if You're Not White

The word "oversight" is not used very often in Miami. You're supposed to make gigantic life decisions on a whim down here — that's part of the draw. You can buy a gun, charter a boat, develop a drug habit, or get a neck tattoo, and pretty much nobody will ask any questions.

But try to buy a house, and everybody gets cold feet really fast. According to a study the website Zillow released today, Miami's banks and lenders deny more mortgage applications than in any other U.S. city.

Even worse, the financial system here appears to be stacked against people of color: Miami banks deny loans to blacks, Hispanics, and Asians way more than anyone else in the nation.

According to Zillow's figures, lenders in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale metro area denied 18 percent of all mortgage applications in 2015, a full 8 percent higher than the national average of 10 percent. The city's average denial rate was the highest in the nation. In other words: The city's real-estate market basically functions like a tiny club where you'll get immediately kicked out if you don't fit in.

In America, the phrase "tiny club of exclusive real estate" pretty much just means "enclave for white people." Startlingly, a full 25.9 percent of black applicants were denied — more than one in four applications. Miami's denial rate for black Americans was the second-highest in the nation, behind only Tampa, which denied 26.6 of black applicants.

Given Miami's very clear history of redlining, in which black applicants were banned from living in Miami Beach, downtown, and along most coastlines, Zillow's research presents a frightening reminder that inequality persists in the city.

Plus, despite Miami's reputation as an enclave for Hispanic immigrants, Miami's banks also denied home loans to Hispanics at the second-highest rate in the nation. Banks denied loans to Hispanics 20.4 percent of the time,  behind just Columbus, Ohio's 22 percent.

Asian applicants were denied 18.7 percent of the time, tracking right along average with the city's overall rate.

But white applicants were admitted more often than average — just 13 percent of the time, though their denial rate still tracked higher than national averages.

So there are two factors at play here: The first is that people of color across the country tend to earn less on average, owing to a host of systemic issues nationwide. In Miami, 74 percent of the black and Latino populations live in "liquid-asset poverty," which means they wouldn't have enough savings to cover their basic life necessities for three months if tragedy struck. Much of that poverty, the study said, was due to the fact that poor people in Miami are forced to spend huge chunks of their income on the city's astronomically high rents.

"The problem is so entrenched that last week Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac announced programs designed to improve access to credit for these groups, which have historically had the lowest homeownership rates even though they are more likely to place a higher value on owning a home," Zillow writes in a release.

While access to more lending sources is great, that shift alone won't solve the other issue at play here: straight-up racism. According to one 2014 National Bureau of Economic Research study, black Americans were charged more for home loans between 2004 and 2008 even if their financial situations were identical to those of white families who were charged less.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, the writer for the Atlantic who recently won a MacArthur Genius grant, argued in his 2014 piece "The Case for Reparations" that the nation's racist housing and mortgage-lending policies have significantly held black Americans down economically and socially in the years since Jim Crow.

There's one small silver lining in the study: Mortgage-denial rates for people of color nationally have slowly decreased over the years. In 2010, 30.5 percent of black mortgage applications were denied.

It seems, however, that progress has not yet hit Miami.
KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.