Homeowner Athena Emerson on her front porch. Image includes this quote from her: I never thought I'd ever see my name on a house deed. But this house was just right for me.
Photo: Jennifer Donaldson
Homeowner Athena Emerson on her front porch. Image includes this quote from her: I never thought I'd ever see my name on a house deed. But this house was just right for me.
Photo: Jennifer Donaldson
May 21, 2018

Opening the door to homeownership

Athena Emerson, who became a first-time homeowner late in life, is “the perfect example” of Wells Fargo’s efforts to boost African American homeownership.

Athena Emerson grew up in Marietta, Georgia, in a loving home, nurtured by her parents and surrounded by a dozen brothers and sisters. That upbringing remained in her heart as she traveled abroad in the military, married, and eventually started a family.

As decades passed, though, she could never afford to buy a home on her own. A widow by age 40, the single mom worked two jobs to support her daughter, who later landed a college scholarship. Health problems took their toll on Emerson, however, and she had to go on disability.

Despite years of adversity, Emerson, 57, lives happily and proudly today in the first home she has ever owned — a modest one-floor house on the outskirts of the Marietta area. Becoming a first-time homeowner at this point in her life was the last thing she expected, she said.

“I never thought I’d ever see my name on a house deed,” the U.S. Army veteran and retired warehouse worker said. “But this house was just right for me. No steps to walk, no grass to mow, like it was made for me … and God had it in store for me when the time was right.”

Athena Emerson, 57, is a first-time homeowner near Marietta, Georgia, thanks to Wells Fargo. (2:15)

‘Our commitment remains steadfast’

For Emerson, the doors to homeownership opened with help from Wells Fargo, which helped her qualify for and obtain a mortgage guaranteed by the Department of Veterans Affairs. The company has set a high priority on boosting homeownership in the African American community, including a $60 billion initiative that began in February 2017. The goal: to create 250,000 homeowners by 2027 and invest an additional $15 million in homeowner education and counseling.

Wells Fargo has committed $60 billion to create 250,000 African American homeowners by 2027.

Last year, Wells Fargo originated nearly 24,000 home loans to African American homeowners, for a total mortgage volume of $5.74 billion, an increase of 2.5 percent from 2016, according to the latest data.

“We’ve made good strides in our goal to increase homeownership in the African American community,” said Brad Blackwell, head of homeownership policy and growth strategies for Wells Fargo Home Lending. “Even in a challenging housing market, our commitment remains steadfast to help raise the homeownership rate, provide education and counseling, and build economic strength for African American homeowners.”

‘Restoring the American dream’

African American leadership organizations have welcomed Wells Fargo’s outreach efforts.

Marc Morial, CEO of the National Urban League, said Wells Fargo is helping reverse the huge drop in homeownership rates that African Americans suffered during the Great Recession.

“Wells Fargo’s African American homeownership commitment has been a crucial element in restoring the American dream to communities of color,” he said. “With its focus on homebuyer education and counseling, the initiative especially addresses a major factor in the disparate impact of the foreclosure crisis on black Americans.”

Wells Fargo helped 23,161 African Americans become homeowners in 2017.

Helping African Americans recover from past losses will have a positive ripple effect on the U.S. economy in general, Morial added.

“Homeownership is a key component of building wealth and stabilizing influence on neighborhoods,” he said. “Wells Fargo isn’t just helping put people of color in their own homes, but also building a more sustainable nation.”

‘The perfect example’

Home Mortgage Consultant Greg Jackson already had a full day’s work ahead of him when a Wells Fargo branch banker called him about potential homebuyer Athena Emerson. It was not unusual to get such calls: Jackson always had plenty of clients looking to buy homes in the busy Atlanta market.

But he said there was something special about Emerson — a veteran, widow, and mother who had rented homes and apartments her entire life. The more he got to know her, the more he was certain he could help her become a homeowner, Jackson said.

“She’s the perfect example of what the African American homeownership commitment represents,” he said. “It’s hope and opportunity to better your circumstances in life.”

Jackson walked Emerson through every step along the way — assisting her with the application, connecting her with a real estate agent, helping her qualify for the program, and following up on the details.

“As I told her, you’re not a transaction to me, you’re a client for life,” he said. “To this day, we still talk about things. We stay in touch.”

Wells Fargo provided more than $1.8 million in grants in 2017 to promote financial education and counseling for African American families.

“He was like a brother to me,” Emerson said. “He explained everything, no matter how many times I asked. He’d patiently break things down so I could understand them. There’s no way I could have done this without him.”

Emerson also commended her real estate agent, Leah Christian, who “was like a second daughter to me, always there to help.”

Said Christian, “Working with Ms. Athena was especially near and dear to my heart. It’s always a pleasure to help someone with their dream of homeownership for the very first time. I couldn’t have been more pleased with the lender and all the parties that came together to make homeownership a reality for her.”

Emerson often thinks back on how far she’s come. After joining the Army out of high school, she worked 11 years in personnel administration, stationed part of that time in Germany during the Cold War. After returning to the states, she met and married her husband Frank, a military firefighting officer. They were married nine years before he died of cancer in 1999.

Lonely, tough years followed for Emerson and her daughter Tera Emerson, including a brief stint in a homeless shelter, Emerson said. They moved several times, eventually into an apartment as Emerson worked in a warehouse and a fast food restaurant, to save enough money for her daughter’s education. The daughter is now a registered nurse for a hospital in the Atlanta area.

Emerson said looking back helps her appreciate her home that much more, despite her severe arthritis and respiratory illness.

“I’m kinda limited, my body won’t let me do much,” she said. “But I’m content now in my home. I take care of it and keep it clean. Maybe it’s the military in me. My mother always taught us well, too — we had the cleanest place in the neighborhood when I was a kid. I appreciate my parents now more than ever. I wouldn’t be the person I am today except for them.”