In Washington, D.C., about 50% of Black households own their homes, and while that’s a few percentage points higher than the national average, it’s still far below the rate for white D.C. households, of which 70% are homeowners. This gap in homeownership has roots in decades-old discriminatory housing policies, and continues to exacerbate the racial wealth gap, leaving Black families behind when it comes to generational wealth building that can come from owning property.
Now, D.C. real estate company Flock is trying to help shift that balance with a foundation called birdSEED, which will give home buying assistance to Black and Brown residents. Launching in February, birdSEED will offer grants between $5,000 and $15,000 toward housing down payments, supporting first-time homebuyers who may otherwise have been shut out of the home buying process.
Lisa Wise, CEO of Flock, says this program is focused on down payment assistance because that upfront sum is often the biggest hurdle to homeownership. “There may be enough monthly income for a family to make a mortgage payment, but it’s those reserves, that cash down payment that’s the barrier between being a renter and being a homeowner,” she says. “We’re hoping that this provides a measure of relief.”
Down payments aren’t the only barrier, though, and Wise added that this is just one gesture that needs to be made in order to create more viable paths to homeownership. Skyrocketing housing costs and gentrification are others. Though birdSEED on its own may not preserve affordability in the D.C. housing stock, that sort of affordable housing advocacy “has to be part and parcel of what we do,” Wise says. And while Flock works exclusively in the District, but the grant program will consider applicants outside of Washington, D.C. proper who have been shut out of the area because of its affordability issues, and the company will be part of housing policy conversations with the city.
Grantees will need to be first-time homebuyers and meet (still to-be-determined) income thresholds, and getting a birdSEED grant will be contingent on mortgage approval. The birdSEED webpage will soon point potential homebuyers to the application, where they’ll share information on income and employment history, lender details, and a brief statement of need. Flock is working to point applicants to other assistance, too, like financial planning resources or affordable housing programs. Already the birdSEED Foundation is working in partnership with the Greater Washington Community Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on housing justice along with other ways to make Washington, D.C. more equitable, which will help review applications.
Flock started in 2008, and is technically a group of real estate companies: boutique property management company Nest DC, along with Roost DC, an employee-owned condo management company; and construction and maintenance arm Starling DC. With all three branches, Flock pulls in about $6.5 million a year in revenue, the Washington Post reported. Some of the initial birdSEED funding has been sourced from employees, Wise says. “That was met with a lot of enthusiasm, to be honest,” she adds. It’s an example of how Flock has been focused on making a difference its community.
This iteration of birdSEED builds off of a previous one that offered micro-grants of $2,500 to $5,000 for “doers, makers, and disruptors” in the District. That first version helped fund ideas like coding classes for Black girls, an effort to give birthday parties to unhoused kids, and the painting of murals around D.C. This new use of birdSEED was inspired by the nationwide reckoning that followed the murder of George Floyd in May 2020.
“I spent more time than ever before looking at what our industry’s role has been in segregation and racism, and decided that we needed to use birdSEED as a vehicle for pursuing a different kind of conversation around race and equity,” Wise says. “And that we needed to see what we could do in terms of freeing up resources for folks to pursue homeownership, because our industry had really excluded so many from that pathway.”
Flock frames this down payment assistance program as a form of reparations. The program will start with $215,000 in seed funding, and will work to raise more funds and form partnerships with real estate agents, mortgagers, and lenders. Wise is hopeful that they can encourage others to contribute, “so that we can create a fund that outlives my idea,” she says. “One that has purpose and longevity and becomes part of the fabric of resources that are available to people that really need them.”