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The Lexington Herald-Leader

A Helping Hand for Hispanics; Program Opens Doors to Homeownership

By Risa Brim, Business Writer

April 8, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Lexington Herald-Leader. All rights reserved.

Agnes Santiago remembers the joy of rolling, jumping, skipping and hopping on hot summer days in the yard of her family's home in Puerto Rico.

Now the Lexington social worker wants her two daughters to have the same freedom -- freedom they don't have at the apartment complex where they live. "I want them to know what it's like to have your own room and your own space to play," said the single mother. "It's my dream."

Soon, her dream may become a reality. Santiago is one of the first few clients of a new program at Ventures Corp. aimed at reaching out to Central Kentucky Hispanics who want to own homes.

"Hispanics are among the most underserved populations when it comes to the housing industry," said Nidia Pecol, a Peru native who heads the new program. "Our goal is to give them some ownership in the communities they live in, to help them live the American dream."

The new program is made possible by an American Dream Homeownership Challenge grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Cincinnati. The grants of $50,000 each are to be used to increase homeownership among minorities and people with special needs.

Under the Community Ventures program, which mirrors an existing homeownership program the agency offers, Hispanic clients will receive free services including credit counseling, financial literacy training and information about programs available for help with down payments and low-cost first mortgages.

The agency also is translating its materials and applications into Spanish.

Ken Kerns, executive vice president of Community Ventures, said real estate agents, bankers, mortgage lenders and others are expecting a boom in Hispanic home buying locally as the population becomes more stable.

Kerns said more Hispanics are making Lexington home. "The misconception is that Hispanics move around, that they work only seasonal jobs and don't stay here long enough to settle down," he said.

"The fact is that many of these people are moving out of seasonal labor and into more stable service jobs, bringing their families here and staying."

The latest census reports show most Hispanics in Fayette County reported living in rented homes, though Community Ventures and area real estate agents and bankers hope that will change.

"This is a population with a lot of pride and good work ethic and money to spend," Pecol said. "As homeowners, they will be able to invest more in our community and help improve our neighborhoods. They simply need help with overcoming some barriers."

One of those barriers, Pecol said, is language. Some banks and mortgage companies don't have translators or bilingual loan officers or translated documents.

"It's always easier to handle business in your native language," said Pecol, who studied translation at a university in Peru. "Everyone, even the most educated and articulate people, knows how intimidating it can be to go to a bank to ask for money. It can be even more so for people who don't speak the language well and are unfamiliar with the American banking system."

In addition, some Hispanics don't know how interest rates work and are not familiar with key financial terms. Often, Hispanics new to the United States lack the credit history they need or have not been taught to properly manage credit. "This can make them become victims of predatory lenders," Pecol said.

Banks, Realtors reach out Pecol said a few banks and other lenders are starting to eliminate "the biggest barrier of all" -- policies requiring a Social Security number for loans.

Garry Throckmorton, Community Reinvestment Act officer at Republic Bank & Trust, said the bank accepts alternative identification with loan applications.

Republic Bank has been increasing services for the Hispanic population in the Lexington and Louisville areas for the past 21/2 years. The bank has bilingual tellers and a bilingual account information hotline and offers financial literacy programs. The bank's ATMs are bilingual, and it will soon offer Internet banking in Spanish.

Republic Bank applied for the American Dream grant and gifted the money to the Community Ventures.

Real estate agents are also hoping to tap into the Hispanic housing market.

Elaine Hangis, executive director of the Lexington Bluegrass Association of Realtors, said reaching out to Hispanics is a key issue for the group.

"We know this is going to be one of our largest populations, so of course we are trying to figure out how to reach them," she said. "Our problem so far is knowing how to find them."

LBAR currently offers cultural diversity training for Realtors, teaching the home sellers about various cultures. The group also offers a listing of Spanish-speaking Realtors. One of those Realtors is Jose Benitez, who works at Realty World Mays & Associates in Lexington.

Benitez, who moved to Lexington from Chicago, said he got his real estate license in July 2003 after discovering the shortage of Spanish-speaking agents.

"I hope to make Hispanics my main focus," he said. "Sometimes people want to do business with someone who knows their language and their cultures, so they will feel comfortable. Buying a home is a big investment, and people want to feel comfortable with their Realtor."

Home, sweet home Pecol agreed.

She said she knows first-hand how difficult it can be to buy a home. The former college professor said credit problems have kept her from buying a home.

"Once, I made it as far as the closing," she said. "I got there, and they discovered that that very month I had been late on a credit card payment, and they turned me away."

Pecol said she now is going through the same process as her clients. "As a child, I was taught to get a good education, be independent and to get my own four walls and a roof," she said. "It is what we all want in life, a place of our own."

News researcher Linda Niemi contributed to this story.

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