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Hispanics Make Gains In Homeownership
By April Hunt | Sentinel Staff Writer
September 2, 2003
GRAPHIC: Homeownership by race
Nellie Rivera took a vacation this summer to a place she had waited her whole life to go.
The exotic locale? The tidy three-bedroom home in Poinciana she has called her own since closing June 27.
"I took my vacation time just to unpack, to set it up the way I had always wanted," said Rivera, a 32-year-old accounts-payable clerk. "You have a house, you feel like you belong. You get respect when you are a homeowner."
Rivera is part of a large -- and growing -- number of Hispanics who have become homeowners in Central Florida. Fifty-four percent of Hispanics in the Orlando area own homes, far better than the nationwide figure of 45 percent, census figures from 2000 show.
Yet Hispanics still lag whites, 72 percent of whom are homeowners in the Orlando area.
Blacks face a similar chasm -- in Orlando, 49 percent are homeowners -- which experts say stems from racial and economic barriers.
Hispanics face other hurdles, such as language and cultural differences. The challenge is to build on successes and turn the area into a model for a nation where Hispanics are about to become the largest minority.
"It surprises me, frankly, with so many people in tourism and the number of recent arrivals from other countries, for Orlando to have such high figures," said Mel Martinez, secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Martinez should know Central Florida. He left his job as Orange County chairman for a job in President Bush's Cabinet, directing federal programs addressing homeownership.
"The numbers are encouraging, but we can do better," he said.
Help available to buyers
Martinez's office recently launched a Spanish-language Web site to help first-time buyers. He also has requested $200 million in federal funds to help educate families in minority communities on buying homes, overcoming the language barrier and dealing with credit issues.
So far, Congress has approved $75 million of the request.
Already, though, there are government programs in the neighborhoods that need them. Latino Leadership in Orange County began education programs for first-time home buyers last year with money from HUD and the National Council of La Raza.
The classes are packed every Saturday, where for five hours counselors explain how to determine everything from eligibility for credit to the cost of a home someone can afford, said Maritza Sanz, the group's president.
Once residents finish the class, they are certified to apply for help from Orange County with their down payment. Those who don't qualify for government assistance are directed to banks with bilingual staffs to help them further.
'For my daughter'
Aristofanes Davila, 36, of Orlando was one of the first people in the program and is now searching for a home. A factory worker who makes pipes, the Nicaragua native has lived in Orlando for eight years and has long wanted to buy a house.
Five months ago, he became a father. Looking at little Angie Yomara Davila Robas, he got serious. "I want something for my daughter," Davila said.
Sanz, who arrived from Puerto Rico 17 years ago, already lives in her second home in Florida. But she comes from an island where homeownership is emphasized, she said.
Latino Leadership must work harder to reach out to Hispanics from other countries who may not have that background or are intimidated by the process.
"Imagine going to a class and hearing these words and the jargon and never hearing any of it before, all in your second language," Sanz said. "Once they understand the system and that they can do it, Hispanics are very committed.
"I tell them, 'We can help you achieve the American dream and even get you a dog.' You have to have a dog," she added. "What could be more American?"
Often, preparing to buy a home is just that, a way to become more American. Housing experts note that immigrants throughout the country's history have used homeownership to become part of the community.
In Osceola County, where nearly a third of residents are Hispanic, that mixing benefits everyone, said Dawn Smith, county housing director.
Homeowners identify with their neighborhood, their schools and other people, she said, which translates into a more-connected community.
In a county where the tourism economy has created a low-wage work force and transient population, such a benefit can be very real.
Osceola has used state funds since 1997 to help 627 families buy their first homes, according to the program's annual reports. Of them, 62 percent have been Hispanic.
Rivera is one of the most recent beneficiaries. Like those who came before her, she attended an orientation, then a daylong workshop that walked her and others through the steps of securing a lender and inspecting a home.
Clients then find out how much down-payment help they qualify for -- between $5,000 and $10,000, depending on income.
Buyers don't have to pay the money back as long as the family lives in the home for 10 years. If the family moves, they pay back a portion of the money based on how long they have lived in the home.
In six years, the program has a default rate of 0.06 percent. Nearly every family that has had to return any money has either moved to a larger home or refinanced their mortgage, which triggers the payback.
Pride in ownership
"I believe people who need help the most are the ones who know the least about it," said Smith, the housing director. "We help them get a leg up. They do the heavy lifting."
Without that first boost, Rivera wonders how long it would have taken her to buy a home for her and her children, Carlos, 15, and Jennifer, 12. Coming from outside New York City, renting was the norm.
The entire process was new, but she said she discovered that if she was willing to work hard, she could get the help she needed.
Now, her pride is her kitchen, decorated with red apples as the entrance to her home.
"It's a shame it has to be broken down 'Hispanic, black, white,' " Rivera said. "Everyone should be able to afford their own home."