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Owning the Dream

Shekinah’s Journey Through a Flawed Housing System

May 24, 2024

Two individuals, who appear to be a couple, one in a dark shirt and slacks and another in a vibrant purple dress with jacket.

“There was nothing in my origin story to support that desire, I just knew that I was tired of the uncertainty of being a renter.”
– Shekinah, UWBA Ambassador

The narrative tends to sound grim—that Bay Area homes are unreachable, unaffordable, and inaccessible for the average person. But there is light. Shekinah’s journey to homeownership not only gives us a bit of hope but also serves as a critical examination of our housing system. While many believe, rightfully so, that homes are simply unavailable, the real crux of the issue often lies in the systemic barriers that make it unnecessarily arduous for potential homeowners even to attempt a purchase.

As a public school educator, Shekinah was under no illusions about the difficulties she would face when she embarked on her journey to homeownership. Featured briefly in the New York Times, her story sheds light on the opportunity and purchasing power of Community Land Trusts (CLT). What the Times article won’t say, is the relentless persistence required to navigate a convoluted system. “There’s a lot of responsibility that goes with being a homeowner,” she says. “But there’s a lot of uncertainty that goes with being a renter, and I didn’t want to live the rest of my life like that. So long before we got to the point of ever hearing about the land trust, we were on a trajectory to become homeowners.”

Determined, Shekinah and her husband Chris decided at the start of their relationship that owning a home was not just a dream but a destination. “Fifteen years ago, I told him I intended to be a homeowner,” she said, candidly. “And that was a ride he could take with me or not, but that’s where I was heading one way or another.” What followed was four years of financial education, developing healthy banking relationships, and moving him from a “100% cash economy” to credit building toward the singular goal – owning a Bay Area home. Slowly, and deliberately, they built a financial foothold following steps many take for granted as part of the homeownership journey.

“We were like, ‘Okay, this is the year we need to make this happen.’ So, we started looking into what we needed to do. The first step in home buying is through some pre-qualification – that was the eight-hour HUD class.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) offers resources to homebuyers through approved counseling agencies. It is an effort meant to demystify the homebuying process and provide first-time buyers with a housing counselor who will guide them every step of the way.

“We were given a list of realtors who had committed to working with people who had gone through those workshops,” she said. “I called every single realtor on that list and heard back from [only] two of them. And one of them looked at us and said ‘Well, I’d love to help you buy a house but with your income, it’s not realistic.”

After going through the list of counselors, Shekinah and Chris finally connected to a local realtor who introduced them to the concept of a CLT — a model unfamiliar to them at the time. A Community Land Trust or CLT is a not-for-profit organization that owns the land to ensure long-term housing affordability for community members and is but one of many social housing solutions. Doing this allows the CLT to help secure permanently affordable home prices, stabilizing neighborhoods and supporting community-driven development. To learn more about social housing, check out our video series Just A Moment episode on Housing Justice featuring South San Francisco Mayor, James Coleman.

Though Oakland Community Land Trust offered a hopeful path forward, it also set off a string of new challenges. To start, the couple had to requalify for their loan under tougher market conditions that included increased interest rates.

“We had already pre-qualified for a loan and were looking at places on what would have been the upper end of anything we could realistically afford, but certainly the lower end of market rate,” Shekinah said. “[But] we had to re-qualify for a whole new loan, even though it was half of what we had been approved for, and the original loan was at a lower interest rate. We couldn’t use any of that. Because at the time, and I think even now, there are very few lenders that are willing to work with community land trust buyers.”

Shekinah thinks this is in part because when applicants need smaller loans, banks tend to put them in different risk categories. It acts as a disincentive for some to buy small and instead keeps homebuyers pushing the limits of their purchasing power. But another factor in this equation is the misconceptions lenders have about CLTs.

“As I understand it, traditional lenders don’t understand the [CLT] model, and they consider lower-income buyers to be a higher risk,” she said. “So, they won’t take the chance, [even] when statistically, it’s been proven to be exactly the opposite. Across the country, across the board, even across the globe, there’s enough data now to show that land trust homeowners [have] statistically a much lower foreclosure rate, and a much lower default rate.”

Despite these obstacles, Shekinah and Chris persevered. Driven by her desire for stability and the promise made to each other all those years ago, they became what she dreamed of – homeowners. Today, they remain in their home in Oakland, California and Shekinah sits on the Oakland Community Land Trust board.

Shekinah’s success is a testament to what is possible when our Bay Area neighbors are adequately prepared and have equitable access to the right resources. These two factors are intuitive to some, but sadly less so for a growing majority of the communities in our region. With its convoluted processes and barriers, the housing system often stands in the way of homeownership for many. As interest rates and housing prices continue to climb, the window for owning a home is narrowing – a stark reminder of the need for systemic change.

Shekinah’s journey is a hopeful narrative, but it is also a call to action. As we celebrate housing wins like this, we must do so by committing to reforming the pathways and programs that lead there. We need to ensure that affordable homeownership is a permanent fixture of our communities, accessible for current and future generations, not just a fortunate few.