Dream of Buying a Home Gets Harder for Single Mothers

Mark A. Carlson

Karlet Hewitt decided to make major lifestyle changes after experiencing the shocks of the pandemic: the income hit, the confinement, the view of the padlocked park through her third-floor apartment window. In February, Ms. Hewitt — a single mother to a 9-year-old boy — left Mount Vernon, N.Y., and headed south.

“The goal for me was to buy a home in North Carolina because it was a better market,” she said. But Ms. Hewitt burned through a lot of her savings as she refocused her event-planning business on virtual gatherings, all while home prices shot up.

“Now,” she said, “how does one even entertain this?”

Even without the benefit of a second earner, single mothers — those who have never married — have made up a growing share of home buyers over the past three decades. Although they still lag single fathers and married couples, a quarter of single mothers were homeowners in 2019 — roughly double the rate in 1990, according to a recent report from the Urban Institute.

But the pandemic threatens to dampen that progress, experts said. Women have borne the brunt of the job losses over the last year and a half, while also shouldering most of the child-care responsibilities — an acute challenge for single mothers, especially those with young children. At the same time, the housing market has grown highly competitive: Prices of single-family homes rose nearly 20 percent in August, the latest data available, from a year earlier, according to S&P CoreLogic Case-Shiller’s National Home Price Index.

“Covid was definitely harder on some households, especially single women with children,” said Jun Zhu, a co-author of the Urban Institute report and a clinical assistant professor with the finance department at Indiana University. “It is possible the pandemic can undo that progress.”

Homeownership is often viewed as a sign of financial stability, with good reason: It ensures that housing costs remain predictable even as rents and inflation rise. And though homeownership is not risk-free, it generally provides a growing store of wealth that can be tapped later or passed on to the next generation.

“Homeownership is an extremely important part of people’s savings and wealth accumulation, especially for middle-income or median households,” said Kelly Shue, a professor of finance at the Yale School of Management.

Ms. Shue analyzed government survey data from 1989 through 2016 and found that, among households with median savings, homes accounted for 70 percent of single women’s wealth near retirement, compared with 50 percent for single men and roughly 60 percent for married couples.

“It’s important for all groups, but especially for single women,” she said.

The pandemic, combined with the challenging market landscape, has eroded women’s confidence about their likelihood of becoming homeowners: Nearly 60 percent of single female heads of households who rent — those who never married, those who are separated or divorced, and widows — said they could not afford to buy and didn’t know if they ever would, according to a September study by Freddie Mac, the government-backed mortgage giant.

“It is really hard,” said Ms. Hewitt, 33, who said her events business was still struggling to regain its prepandemic momentum. She’s focusing on stabilizing her income so she can rebuild her down-payment fund. That’s a challenging prospect given the costs of rent; child care for her son, Adam; and student loan debt that now tops $109,000, although her payments are on hold.

“How do you make your way out of this?” she asked. “I am an optimist, but I don’t know.”

Single women accounted for 19 percent of home buyers from July 2020 through June 2021, up from 18 percent in the preceding year, according to an analysis from the National Association of Realtors released on Thursday. The slight increase is above prepandemic rates, but may partly be a result of the decline in the number of Americans getting married, said Jessica Lautz, vice president of demographics and behavioral insights at the Realtors group.

“Women have a lot of headwinds right now,” she said. “We know they are buying on a lower income even as prices have increased and inventory has decreased.”

Single women buying their first home, for example, had a median household income of $58,300 in 2020, compared with $69,300 for their male counterparts, the association found. Single women tend to be older when they buy, and spend less on their homes: The median age of first-time single female buyers was 34, compared with 31 for men, and women spent about 14 percent less.

Taylor Hurles, a 27-year-old single mother who lives with her two young sons in the Bronx, was already working full time as an associate producer for a production company when she picked up a side job — social media director for a music website — to start putting aside money for a down payment.

She was looking into programs for first-time home buyers when her plans were upended: She lost her full-time job last November, and the social-media gig ended in January. She filed for unemployment, which didn’t cover her household expenses, and started applying for jobs — she had more than 40 interviews. The ones conducted over Zoom were a struggle: She was often interrupted by her 7-year-old, who was home in remote school, she said.

“Getting laid off from that job changed the whole vision board,” said Ms. Hurles, whose younger son is 3 weeks old.

She has since picked up more contract jobs and begun to reassess her entire approach to work. A more entrepreneurial life as a freelancer doing production and other creative work may provide her with more flexibility, but it also adds the stress of running a business.

“We don’t live in a society where they pay you what you’re worth,” said Ms. Hurles, who has more than $140,000 in student loans, largely from a master’s degree in television, radio and film.

Her experience will be a familiar one to many single mothers.

Just before the pandemic, in January 2020, 81 percent of single mothers were participating in the labor force, meaning they were working or looking for work, according to an analysis by Lauren Bauer, a fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution. But it dropped sharply as the virus took hold: The rate plunged to 75 percent in April 2020. This September, it was 77 percent — still below its prepandemic level.

Unmarried mothers like Ms. Hurles — those with the youngest children, under 5 years old — have been hit hardest. Their participation rate was 60 percent in August, 10 points off its prepandemic level — the biggest gap among all mothers, Ms. Bauer found.

Ms. Hewitt, Ms. Hurles and other single mothers who are striking out on their own often face added hurdles: It can be harder to get a loan without a stack of W-2s to show steady income.

Ms. Hurles has $8,000 in her down-payment fund so far and hasn’t given up on her dream of homeownership, she said. It will just take her a little longer to get there, she said.

On Monday, after three weeks of unofficial maternity leave, she was back to work — remotely — at her contract job as a production assistant on educational talks and lectures.

Her plan is simple: “Keep going,” she said.

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