The focus on racial justice that began in 2020, including attention to economic disparities such as the racial gap in homeownership rates, continues to generate ideas about how to remedy inequality in the United States.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 75 percent of Whites were homeowners in the fourth quarter of 2020, compared with 60 percent of Asians, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, 49 percent of Hispanics and 44 percent of Blacks. There are many root causes for homeownership disparities, including longtime racial discrimination. Another factor is lack of money for the down payment, which some first-time home buyers get through intergenerational support and many others do not.

In response to the issue, Flock DC, a real-estate-management company, launched the Birdseed down-payment assistance program, in partnership with the Greater Washington Community Foundation. Applicants must be first-time home buyers in the D.C. metro area with a maximum combined income of $150,000 and have lived in the area for at least three years. In addition to meeting lender standards for a mortgage, the primary applicant must identify as American Indian, Indigenous or Alaska Native; Asian American/Pacific Islander, Black or African American, Hispanic or Latinx. The group is identifying its first four grant recipients now.

We asked Lisa Wise, CEO of Flock DC, to discuss this recently launched initiative.

Q: Please tell us the background of why Birdseed was started and where the funding is coming from. Why is there down-payment assistance as opposed to other financial support?

A: Flock manages residential real estate and, as a purpose-driven company that puts people and place over profit, we have always believed that dignified housing for all can and should be a basic human right. As civil unrest began to swell in our country, we knew we needed to do something bold to address the real estate industry’s racist past. It’s not enough to say we need and want a more just and equitable future for Black and Brown community members, we want to invest our time and money in the change we want to see.

In early September we expanded our existing Birdseed philanthropy program to include a housing-justice initiative that provides virtually no-strings down-payment support for Black and Brown first-time home buyers in the D.C. area. As it turned out, this is the first program of its kind nationally. Down-payment assistance programs exist but have many requirements for forgiveness and can have barriers to entry for applicants. We wanted a streamlined, simplified process that mirrored the same kind of windfall many receive from family when they are ready to buy their first home. Those intergenerational gifts plant the seeds for wealth creation. We hope Birdseed can do just that for recipients who otherwise need years to save for down payments as housing prices increase all the while.

Grants are intended to accelerate the home-buying experience so we can advance equity and equality. We won’t lie. The pandemic has been hard on our business, and we still have a bumpy road ahead, so the funds are a blend of personal savings from me and some earmarked budget lines for Flock so we can fund the program over time. We’re seeding the fund with $215,000 and have been thrilled to raise an additional $18,000 from the community without a strong ask. We intend to do a big fundraising push and we’re proud to say that Flock is donating all of our time and the administrative resources to support Birdseed so 100 percent of any donation is earmarked for down-payment grants. We’re in the process now of selecting the final four recipients of our first funding round.

Q: Can Birdseed funds be used with other down-payment assistance programs?

A: Yes, Birdseed can be used in conjunction with any additional down-payment assistance program like HPAP in D.C. [Home Purchase Assistance Program].

Q: How does someone apply and qualify for the funds?

A: Birdseed will make grants quarterly. We are accepting applicants now for a May 31st deadline. The application process is intentionally simplified with a handful of qualifying questions, a one-page essay and an interview with members of the advisory committee. Requirements and details are on the Birdseed website at Grant amounts will range from $5,000 to $15,000. Funds are released at the closing, and awardees have 120 days to exercise the grant with an option to extend on a case-by-case basis if the timing for their purchase isn’t lining up.

Q: Are you working with specific lenders or real estate agents for this program?

A: We don’t have any official affiliations, but we’re working hard to aggregate a list of real estate specific resources that also have some representation in the BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] community. This is a much taller order than one might expect. And that in and of itself is exceptionally disappointing. We’ve got a list of real estate agents, a handful of mortgage companies, two banks and not one title company with diverse ownership or representation. We have to do better. We have to vote with our dollars and create opportunities for more authentic diversity across the industry and not in just the sales environment but the adjacent practices as well like lending, development and more. Resources will be continuously available on our Birdseed website and will point to vendors, professionals and community/organizational support programs for interested buyers.