Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s role in getting women fair access to mortgage loans paved the way for female homeownership to rise

Hannah Herrera Greenspan, Chicago Tribune
·7 min read

After buying a condo in southwest suburban Lemont last fall, Brittainy Barattia not only signed her name on the dotted line, but also her marital status.

“When you sign your homeownership paperwork, there are several times when you have to sign the state of your marital status,” she said. “And they have to read it to you, so it would be like, ‘For Brittainy Barattia, a single woman, Brittainy Barattia, a single woman.’ I’m like, ‘Mmm hmm, I get it. My mom gets it, too — she is hearing you right now.’”

Single women in the United States have outpaced single men when it comes to home ownership since the late 1980s, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. But it wasn’t until legal battles and a law guaranteeing equal access to credit passed just a few years earlier that women could buy homes independently.

And among the women who helped make it possible? None other than Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the late U.S. Supreme Court justice, who died last month at 87 after decades of championing gender equality.

“Her strategy has been to chip away at decades and decades of discrimination,” said Wendy Singer, director of education at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center. “And she started doing this at a young age, by responding to letters at the New Jersey ACLU and working on one case at a time.”

As a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union in the early 1970s, a 39-year-old Ginsburg co-founded the Women’s Rights Project, taking on hundreds of gender discrimination cases. Many focused on financial issues, while some turned to inequality that men faced, building on a landmark case she argued that resulted in the Supreme Court ruling that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause prohibits discrimination based on any gender.

“Her strategy was to focus on equality for all,” Singer said. “So she would fight cases where men weren’t receiving the same benefits as women.”

At the Skokie-based museum, the exhibit “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” focuses on the feminist icon’s career, as well as her life as a working mother in a male-dominated field.

“She was a mom, she was a woman, she was Jewish; all of those things were against her when she was a young lawyer coming out of the gate,” Singer said. “She persevered, and she did it in a way that was authentic and effective.”

These victories helped carve out space for breakthroughs in financial equality for women, including the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, which prohibits creditors from discriminatory lending practices based on sex and marital status — thanks in no small part to the work of another feminist trailblazer, U.S. Rep Lindy Boggs.

While on the congressional banking committee that reviewed the ECOA before its passage, Boggs added the provision barring discrimination based on sex or marital status without telling her fellow committee members. Later, she told them she assumed it was an omission, and the bill passed unanimously.

Prior to the law’s passage, while women weren’t banned outright from owning, purchasing or selling real estate, they could not get mortgages or manage their own bank accounts without a male co-signer.

“The idea that a woman would need a man ... to sign on her behalf, either as a husband or a father or something of that nature, put her at a great disadvantage — and at the mercy of the male figures in their lives,” said John Russick, a historian who oversees exhibitions and research at the Chicago History Museum. “The Equal Credit Opportunity Act provided women with a new measure of rights in the American monetary system.”

The law had a swift impact on female homeownership as the ’70s progressed. In 1970, the U.S. Census recorded just 610 single women as heads of their households, and that number more than doubled by 1979, six years after the ECOA passed. Starting in 1986, single women outpaced single men in homeowernship and continue to do so, according to a 2019 report from real estate-focused advocacy group Women in the Housing & Real Estate Ecosystem.

“I think a woman having a credit card, bank account or mortgage in our own names is so commonplace that we might take for granted that it’s always been that way,” Felicia Davis, president and CEO of Chicago Foundation for Women said in an email.

Earlier this year, real estate agency Compass and Better.com analyzed mortgage data and named Chicago one of the top cities for single women buying property. A 2018 study by Bank of America, meanwhile, found that 73% of women prioritize owning a home over getting married and starting a family, compared to 65% of men.

“I bought my first home as a single woman,” Davis said. “Despite the fact that we still make, on average, 80 cents to our male co-workers’ dollar, single women far outpace their male counterparts in purchasing homes.”

Robyn Gevas, a travel agent, bought her Lakeview condo three years ago because she wanted to take the next big step in life, despite doubts she’d ever own a home.

“My rent increased,” she said, “and I felt like I was paying just as much for rent that I could on a mortgage. So I looked around and it was true; I was able to buy for just about the same amount of rent.”

Before buying her home, Gevas lived in a studio apartment for about $1,000 per month. Now she and her one-year-old son live in a two-bedroom condo with outdoor space. Her mortgage is higher than the rent for her studio — but not by much.

When it came to learning about the homebuying process, in addition to her real estate agent and mortgage broker, Gevas said she turned to the women in her life — her mother and grandmother — for advice.

Her advice to other single women looking to buy property is to just go for it.

“It’s not anything to be afraid of,” Gevas said. “You just have to take it one step at a time. When I wanted to start a family, I didn’t have a husband or anything, so I went out and had a baby on my own, too ... One little step adds up to the bigger picture.”

Barattia, an agent with Chicago’s Gray Talent Group, said owning her own home was something she wanted for herself, but it wasn’t easy because of loans she’d acquired as a young adult.

“Leading up to purchasing my home was incredibly difficult,” Barattia said. “I had student loans to pay off, a car to pay off; I was a young professional and I work in the arts — not the most incredibly lucrative profession.”

To make it happen, Barattia said she took on odd jobs to help pay off her student loans faster. Nervous about the process, Barattia said she walked away from the experience feeling like she was spoken to differently because she’s a woman.

“I hate to say this, but I think even the way that people treat you when you’re a female (changes),” she said. “When you’re calling the inspector, they talk to you a different way than maybe they would talk to a man. Or the realtor would show you different things like, ‘Oh well, look at this closet space’ as opposed to like ‘this has a really solid foundation.’”

Even after her loan was approved, Barattia said the stigma continued.

“I mean, I’m not a man, so maybe they would talk to a man in the same way,” Barattia said. “But it did feel a little bit like they were holding my hand or being slightly more delicate, making sure that I understood everything ... Some of it you appreciate, too, because it is uncharted territory. It’s a little scary, so you want someone thorough, but you also don’t want to be talked down to.”

Barattia suggested aspiring homeowners set a budget and explore what type of homes are within the budget; don’t overthink; and be realistic about renovations, and figure out what tasks they can handle themselves — and which are best left to professionals.

“It’s a really scary thing, to own your own home and to be a woman and have what you think is something that’s reserved for people with a husband or a family,” she said. “People shouldn’t be afraid to just reach out and grab that.”

hgreenspan@chicagotribune.com

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