Boston’s a tough market for millennials and artists seeking mortgages. Here’s what can be done.

The Network for Arts Administrators of Color (NAAC Boston) is a program that enhances the visibility of professionals of color in Greater Boston’s arts and culture sector, as well as widen the leadership pipeline and highlight opportunities for professional and personal growth in the field. NAAC Boston offers participants the opportunity to connect, network, and share learnings with the intent to empower, elevate, and retain talented professionals of color in the sector. The creation of this network reflects the importance of visibility for professionals of color, and the value that diverse perspectives contribute to an enhanced workforce and culture.

By Ngoc-Tran Vu

Tran Vu by Three Circles StudioI knew Boston was a tough town to buy a place to live when I started looking. The average prices for condos and single family homes are between $500k to almost a million, a rate that had more than doubled from when I left Dorchester for college in 2006. It’s hard to save enough for a down payment, at least not without a lot of help from family. But the current market is particularly hard for millennials; Americans aged 23 to 38 these days. And even a lot harder for people of color – especially those who identify as Black and Latinx.

I moved back in with my parents in Dorchester, my home community, after finishing graduate school, to keep my expenses low, allowing me to save more. I am a working artist, but I also have a day job to make sure I have a regular income. When I decided to start the home-buying process, I had a credit score of 783, enough saved to put 10% percent down on a place in my price range, plus money for all the extra incurred costs like insurance and fees. And I was pre-approved for a loan. Still, it took me six months, more than a dozen bids, and two loans pulled from approval at the last minute. One loan was through a first-time home buyers program that initially miscalculated my income – it turned out I made slightly over the required income to qualify for it at the time – and the other claimed to be uncomfortable about my “work history being an artist and community activist.”

Rebecca Steele, CEO of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling, concurred that my experience reflects a more challenging market for millennials in the traditional banking system than their predecessors. We stay single longer. More of us have student debt and are self-employed, freelancers and members of the growing gig economy.

Most banks prefer buyers with traditional W2 salary because it shows a more stable income stream than those who are self-employed or freelancers who may have fluctuating incomes. There are Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac guidelines that recommend taking a two-year work history or average of schedule C income for loan applicants who are self-employed. But Steele says the two-year measure is challenging for freelancers, because their pay can be irregular. As an artist, I go through periods of time where I do not receive the commissions or grants I am hoping for and some clients haven’t paid me on time.

Steele recommends that lenders adapt to the changing workforce in several ways; they need to create more expansive guidelines to support those who have 1099-MISC incomes, or those who have multiple income streams. She also advocates for families and young people to start building credit and utilizing financial best practices early to prepare for homeownership. The city of Boston could help, too – I went through the city’s first-time homebuyer course, and while it was helpful, it lacked curriculum and resources for self-employed and freelance workers. The city runs Metrolist that share housing resources and has some programs in place to help with affordable housing such as a first-time homebuyer mortgage, down payment support, and affordable condo lotteries. These programs are extremely competitive and often do not reach historically disadvantaged communities who speak different languages.

Made Elsewhere Project | Photo by Ngoc-Tran Vu


I’d like to see the city create specific policies and add incentives to financial institutions to encourage homeownership among millennials, especially artists and cultural workers. Perhaps designate more housing and workshops specifically for artists, lessen the requirements for stable income documentation and provide grants plus interest-free insurance to support freelancers with down payments. And city government needs to stay vigilant about discrimination. A major investigative report found that in many cities, lenders still discriminate against people based on their skin color, their marital status, occupation or zip code. Boston was not on the list of cities, but only because of lack of data. As a young Vietnamese American woman, I worried that the mortgage process might be stacked against me. I did beat the odds and fortunately, I was able to get my loan approval in the end.

Boston’s future will be diverse and homeownership should be accessible for young people and those who do not fit the archaic model profile of what lenders consider desirable. In fact, if things don’t change, future homes will be predominately owned by large companies, white families or those of immense generational wealth. Thus, financial institutions and home loan providers need to start adjusting to changing demographics. Also, why shouldn’t preference be given to local homebuyers who want to remain in their communities? This would help reduce gentrification and displacement that is rapidly taking place in Boston and beyond.

I am a proud homeowner now, in the neighborhood where I grew up and want to remain. It would not have happened if I hadn’t been able to push back against a system that was not properly set up to support people like me, even as I had meticulously tried to prepare myself for success. I can’t help but think about many others who have been turned down and denied the opportunity of homeownership. Especially those who are committed to meaningful, long-term contributions to their home community, beyond personal financial stability and profit.

Mural photo by Courtney Regan

To learn more about this issue, register for “Navigating Housing & Studio Spaces for Artists: Know Your Rights and Resources” with Ngoc-Tran Vu and Liliana Mangiafic with Assets for Artists on December 2, 2020.

Header Photo: Community in Action Mural |Photo by Courtney Regan

Tran VuNgoc-Tran Vu (she/her) is a Vietnamese-American interdisciplinary artist whose socially engaged work draws from her experience as an organizer, educator, and healer. Tran threads her social practice through painting, sculpture, photography and audio so that her art can resonate and engage audience with intentionality. Born in Vietnam, Tran came to the United States with her family as political refugees and grew up in Boston’s Dorchester and South Boston working-class neighborhoods. She received her MA in Arts and Politics at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and her BA in Ethnic Studies and Visual Arts at Brown University. Tran is currently an artist-in-residence with Stable Ground and a part of resident-led community alliance Dorchester Not 4 Sale. She works across borders and is rooted in the Dorchester community.
twitter-4-512 @TranVuArts instagram-4-512 @tranvuarts

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