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INTEREST-FREE LOANS HELP DRAW BLACK FIRST-TIME HOMEBUYERS TO TWO TOWNS By Mason Levinson

Updated: Apr 29

Community Coalition on Race creates pilot loan program to promote integration


Noelle Perez and son, Malachi, moved to Maplewood with help from the Wealth Gap Equalizer Loan.

The South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race is putting its money where its mouth is.


Since 1996, the nonprofit has focused on encouraging diversity and “intentional integration.” Through community engagement, marketing, research and educational programming, it has provided Maplewood and South Orange with the tools for racial, ethnic, and cultural inclusion in all aspects of public life. It aspires to be and is often sought out as a model for such efforts in other communities.


Recently, in response to data showing a decline in the two towns’ Black population during the past decade, the group created a $75,000 pilot program called the Wealth Gap Equalizer Loan. The program cut its first check in 2022. It offers first-time Black and non-white Hispanic homebuyers up to $7,500 in interest-free loans to help with purchase-associated expenses such as down payments, closing costs and home improvements, as well as help with competing in bidding wars.


Although that may seem like peanuts in a local real estate circus in which the 2023 average home sale price was $890,127, it brings breathing room to loan recipients. “We looked at the fact that historically, because of the wealth gap, there isn’t that additional income that sometimes becomes important in the home-buying process,” says Audrey Rowe, the Coalition’s program director. “Our goal is to give this money to our target audience so we can meet our goal of helping our community stay racially integrated.”


The loan program is not focused on affordable housing. The Coalition has awarded six of 10 planned loans, including for condo purchases under $200,000 and homes costing more than $500,000.


“We’re not an organization that’s focused on supporting Black residents, white residents, what have you,” she says. “We’re supporting the concept of integration.”

“We’re looking to help people who are right at the door but just don’t have that little extra cash to step over the threshold,” says Rowe. “We don’t want to restrict the aspirations of our applicants. We just want to give them what they need to live where they would like to live in our community.”



Audrey Rowe is the program director for the South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race.

The loans require recipients to possess a lender’s mortgage pre-approval letter and to complete a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-approved first-time home buyer education program, as helping applicants with financial literacy is a goal of the initiative. Loans must be repaid within five years. For those purchasing in South Orange, up to 50% of the loan is eligible for forgiveness after five years of residency, thanks to a trust fund set up specifically for that town. Details of the complete loan application process are available on


Rowe, a driving force behind the loan program, says she began seeking financial incentives to draw more Black families to the two towns after the Coalition’s 2016 Demographics Report showed that although white, Asian and Hispanic populations were growing here, the Black population was in decline.


From 2010-2020, the population of residents who identified solely as Black decreased by 1,130 people, or about 9 percent, according to the Coalition’s 2022 report. Though the wealth gap plays a significant role in that downturn, factors such as climate, job availability, crime, education, taxes and Black residents’ interest in smaller cities with larger Black communities have also impacted the population, the Coalition has said.


To confront the issue, the Coalition, helped by many community and legal partners, worked through several years of hurdles to create an offering that didn’t violate fair housing laws. The result was the Wealth Gap Equalizer Loan. “Our homes are often our most valuable assets. They typically appreciate over time, but Black families have historically faced obstacles in accessing this asset due to racist lending practices, governmental policies, and restrictions on where they could buy homes,” says Rowe. “While Black homeownership won’t solve all racial wealth disparities, it can have a positive impact by generating significant and sustained increases in wealth over time.”


Among the biggest hurdles to expanding the loan program beyond the pilot stage is convincing other would-be donors that it actually makes a difference in the life of a first-time homebuyer.

“$7,500 isn’t pennies,” says Kristin Fulton, a 35-year-old actress who bought her two-bedroom Maplewood townhome with help from the Coalition loan. “I think any pushback in terms of, ‘It’s not enough,’ are probably coming from folks who have a certain level of privilege around finances and money.”


Kristin Fulton bought her two-bedroom Maplewood townhome with help from the Coalition loan.

Fulton, who previously lived in a Brooklyn studio, was raised in Union Township. As a child, she visited Memorial Park each year for the Fourth of July fireworks show.


“Growing up, when I saw SOMA from the outside looking in, I saw it as a more diverse community, even though I was in Union, which at the time was very diverse,” Fulton says. “There was a certain beautification or fantasy I had about SOMA. So during the process, when I learned about the decline in Black and brown families, that was very surprising.”


Fulton used her loan to help with closing costs. Having moved in about a year ago, she said the experience has helped her to better understand the wealth-building aspect of homeownership and its value as a safety net. She also appreciates the cyclical aspect of the loan program.


“I find it uplifting that folks studied this and figured out that there was a problem and then came up with a viable solution,” she says. “So, after I’ve paid back my loan, someone else will be able to use that money to fulfill their dream.”


Noelle Perez, a Washington state native who spent 15 years in New York City, moved to Maplewood about a year ago with help from the loan program. She learned about the program through local real estate agent Jacqueline Hunter. Upon moving into a three-bedroom home near Maplecrest Park, Perez immediately used some of her loan to trim three huge trees in her backyard, creating a safe environment for her 10-year-old son, Malachi.


Real estate agent Jacqueline Hunter introduced homeowner Noelle Perez to the Coalition loan. Here they share their experiences at a panel discussion.

“After we closed, the neighborhood boys came over with cookies and introduced themselves, and so my son was playing outside in the middle of winter,” says Perez, who works in real estate development, design and construction. “That makes me so happy to know that he’s safe. It’s completely changed the trajectory of his upbringing, because he would not have been able to do that in the city.”


Steve Worthy and his wife, Christina Anderson Worthy, are just getting used to Maplewood, having moved here from the Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn in November 2023. The Worthys, seeking more space for themselves and their almost 1-year-old son, learned about the loan program during their home search with real estate agent Collette Andrews.


“It just gave us a little bit of extra firepower to spend on some of the immediate improvements and additional inspections we wanted to get done,” says Worthy, who works in finance for a healthcare startup. Anderson Worthy is vice president for new product growth at Teach for America. Although they are thrilled with the additional space, the Worthys’ home itself hasn’t been the highlight of their new surroundings. “The best thing about moving to Maplewood so far, honestly, it’s been our neighbors,” he says. “We couldn’t have asked to land on a better block.”


That’s music to the ears of Rowe, who knows good music when she hears it. Her daughter is Solana Rowe, aka SZA, who just won three 2024 Grammy Awards. She has often said that growing up in the two towns informed who she is as an artist.


The Community Coalition on Race will continue to track racial trends, allowing it to tweak the application criteria should a different area of the population decline in the years to come, Rowe said.


Mason Levinson, a two-decade reporter at Bloomberg News, is director of content at Maplewood-based PR firm RoseComm.

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