CINCINNATI — Naima Jackson’s house on Alaska Court in Avondale is more than her home. It’s her family legacy.
Jackson’s great-grandparents bought the house 53 years ago after moving to Cincinnati from Mississippi, becoming some of the first Black homeowners on the street.
Her father, Nathaniel Jackson, inherited the home and lived there until he died in 2015. Jackson cared for him in his final years. She lived in the house with her dad – an accomplished jewelry maker and longtime business owner – when his Alzheimer’s disease made it unsafe for him to live alone.
Now, the brick two-story belongs to Jackson. But all its problems do, too.
“My heating system, some parts of my roof. There’s no adequate heat to the second floor of my house. There’s two bedrooms up there. But being that I have old electric wiring, space heaters are not really safe at this time,” Jackson said, rattling off a partial list of repairs her house needs. “My basement is not a wet-dry basement. It leaks. There’s just various things that’s wrong.”
So many things are wrong that Jackson is struggling to keep up. The house has been paid off for more than 20 years, she said, so there is no mortgage hanging over her head. But the repairs must be made to keep the house livable, and Jackson’s monthly Social Security disability checks can’t cover the costs.
“This family house is everything,” she said. “I’m trying to save a legacy.”
Jackson has sought help from churches and more nonprofit organizations than she can count, she said, but she keeps hitting dead ends.
Noel Beyer said that’s because Greater Cincinnati has a lack of programs in place to help people like Jackson.
“There’s definitely service gaps, and a lot of people fall through the cracks,” said Beyer, the founder and president of Neighborhood Allies, a nonprofit that helps connect people with social services. “I feel like there’s a lot of homeowners that maybe have a family member pay off the house. They might have worked really hard to pay off the house, and then there’s not a lot of options for help when it comes to that point.”
‘An extraordinarily common’ problem
There simply aren’t programs for every need, said Rick Williams, president and CEO of The Home Ownership Center of Greater Cincinnati.
“There will never be enough money to support existing homeowners who find themselves in a situation where their home is in disrepair and their incomes are limited to address that,” Williams said. “It is an extraordinarily common phenomenon across the country. And, of course, like most issues, they impact lower wage, middle- to lower-income families more than they do anyone else, and, of course, those families tend to be minority families.”
Roughly 69% of white households owned their homes in Hamilton County in 2018, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey estimates based on data collected between 2014 and 2018. During that same time period, only 32% of Black households owned their homes, according to the data analyzed by the Local Initiatives Support Corp., or LISC, of Greater Cincinnati.
That analysis shows the rate of home ownership among Hamilton County's Black households has decreased more since 2000 than the rate of home ownership among the county's white households.
Being a homeowner is important to Jackson, she said, and keeping her family home is even more important.
“This is the first home that was purchased in my family lineage,” she said. “Me and my son are the current residents here, but I have a 75-year-old mother that lives like less than a mile from me.”
If Jackson could get repairs made to the house, she said, it would be safe for her mom to move in and would eliminate the need for her mother to pay rent.
Jackson said she has tried to get a loan to pay for some of the repairs, and her mother has offered to cosign for it. But, because her mother doesn’t live in the house currently, Jackson said, lending officers have not been willing to move forward.
Jackson gets disability benefits because of injuries she suffered more than a decade ago.
“I was an innocent gunshot victim by the hands of a 16-year-old child carrying a weapon,” she said. “It changed my life.”
She is permitted to work while receiving disability payments, she said, and she used to have a job driving for a construction company. But she has breathing problems and asthmatic bronchitis, and the COVID-19 pandemic made it unsafe for her to continue that work. That has made it impossible for her to earn additional money to pay for the repairs.
“My mom, my niece, my nephew. We can utilize this home if somebody would reach out and help us,” Jackson said.
Longtime homeowners with limited incomes are especially vulnerable in communities like Avondale where new development is occurring, Beyer said.
“Especially in a changing neighborhood, it’s really important to be able to keep the people that are the neighborhood, the people that have been here such a long time,” she said. “I don’t want to say that it’s a purposeful squeeze out, but I think it is definitely a squeeze out.”
Assumptions in the system
Fixing the problem facing Jackson and so many other homeowners across the country will take more than programs or federal funds, Williams said.
Instead, complex, systemic change is needed, he said, in the way property is valued, the way homes are appraised and the way loans are made.
“African American neighborhoods in Greater Cincinnati and across the country, they tend to have lower values than other comparable neighborhoods that are inhabited by white homeowners. That is just a fact,” Williams said. “African American homebuyers become victims of this sort of unacknowledged fact that in the quest to just get to a closing, there are realities applied to their situation that are consistent and correct in white neighborhoods but not in Black ones.”
Those include the assumption that the homeowners won’t stay in their homes after seven years, that their incomes will increase and that home values in their neighborhoods will increase, too, he said.
“All of these factors that apply to white neighborhoods but do not, in the same way, apply to Black neighborhoods,” he said. “There’s not an assistance from the system itself to help make the correct calculations and evaluations of that homeownership decision.”
The Home Ownership Center works with prospective homebuyers to help them consider all those factors, he said, and sometimes works with people like Jackson, too, who have become new homeowners through inheritance.
Jackson doesn’t have time for the systems to change. She’s looking for a way to get the repairs her house needs – and is hoping to be blessed.
“This house has been blessed over and over and over for generations. So I feel lucky, and I feel honored. I want to honor them the best way I can,” Jackson said, choking back tears as she gestured to pictures of her father and great-grandmother. “At least so they know that I fought in order to bring the family home.”
More information about Neighborhood Allies is available online and on Facebook. Information about The Home Ownership Center of Greater Cincinnati is available online, too.
A GoFundMe campaign has been established to help Naima Jackson. Click here for information. Donations also can be directed to The Jackson Home Fund at any WesBanco Bank branch.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To reach Lucy, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.