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School of Social Service Administration Magazine

Out of the House

In the early 2000s, single women were the fast growing group of homebuyers in the country. When the foreclosure crisis hit, they figured disproportionately among those who lost their homes. And in most cases, says the author of a new study, social services have failed to help them.

“It’s a piece that hasn’t been talked about before,” says Amy Baker, a doctoral candidate in social welfare at the CUNY Graduate Center and the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College and the author of “Eroding the Wealth of Women: Gender and the Subprime Foreclosure Crisis” in the March 2014 issue of the Social Service Review.

The 1974 Equal Credit Opportunity Act gave women increased access to mortgages and other credit. By 2006, a fifth of all new homebuyers were single women. Most were working women with a long employment history. Many were women of color.

And yet at every income level, Baker says, women were more likely than men to receive subprime mortgages. Research shows that among subprime borrowers, single women were overrepresented compared to men by 29 percent, despite having higher credit scores. African-American women were 256 percent more likely than white men to receive a subprime mortgage, even controlling for location and financial profile. At the same time, in a practice Baker calls “reverse redlining,” lenders were promoting subprime mortgages in low-income minority communities, where women were often heads of households.

In effect, Baker says, subprime mortgages became a tool for extracting wealth from women, “effectively eroding women’s ability to remain financially stable as they age.” By deferring to financial institutions, moreover, the federal government left a “policy gap” that allowed new forms of gender inequality in housing and lending to flourish.

Meanwhile, Baker says social service agencies were ill-equipped to help women suffering foreclosure. Women she interviewed in other research were behind on their mortgages by tens of thousands of dollars and yet, instead of legal help, got advice to cut back on oil changes and to shop at thrift stores. “We didn’t realize how big it was going to get,” she says. “We couldn’t figure out what was happening, let alone know how to deal with it.”

Castro Baker, Amy. “Eroding the Wealth of Women: Gender and the Subprime Foreclosure Crisis.” Social Service Review 88 (1): 59-91.