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The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Hispanic Home Ownership Grows

Barriers come down as ethnic group sees rise in numbers, clout


5 September 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 

Ruben Robelo, who was born in Mexico, spent his late teens in Milwaukee working long hours every day. He was determined to buy a home.

He was about 20 when he succeeded, the longtime foundry and restaurant worker said.

Today, Robelo, 46, owns four properties on the city's south side.

His uncle, Javier, 54, owns 14. And his brother, 25-year-old Ricardo, bought his first house last week.

Their specialty is distressed, foreclosed homes priced less than $30,000 that they renovate to live in or rent out.

"The foundry closed down. The restaurant business -- there was no money there," said Ruben Robelo. "But when I started investing with my uncle, it's gone pretty good. We work together."

Ruben Robelo, who has been in America longer than his uncle and brother and is most fluent in English, speaks for them in the non- Spanish-speaking world.

But the language issue isn't as much of a barrier as it might have been a few years ago.

New immigrants have long been expected to conform to American ways, but American business interests increasingly see the wisdom and profit in accommodating immigrants.

The Hispanic home market is huge, has money and is eager to buy, experts say. And with a 47.3% homeownership rate vs. the 69.2% national average, it's also underserved.

Forty million strong, Hispanics are the fastest-growing ethnic group in the country. In Milwaukee, their numbers have doubled since 1990 -- exceeding 89,000 in 2002, according to U.S. Census figures.

Their path toward wealth has a remarkable trajectory: a collective $668.5 billion in buying power last year, up from $499.2 billion in 1999, and it's expected to climb about $31 billion this year, according to a study released in May by HispanTelligence, a market research firm.

"We are an incredible power machine, bringing money to the economy and keeping the economy going," said Aura Mora-Gheller, a Venezuelan native and bilingual sales agent with Milwaukee-based Homestead Realty.

Latinos often come from cash-based societies -- a disadvantage in America's credit- and bank account-based culture, said Bruce Dorpalen, director of housing counseling for the Washington, D.C.- based Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.

"They have great credit histories, but not stuff that shows up on credit reports -- like car loans, credit cards and student loans," he said. "Also, they have a higher portion of undocumented wages, working off the books as landscapers, domestics, child care workers. Traditional lenders often don't recognize this" as evidence of a good borrower.

A language barrier and consumer savviness can also be hurdles to buying a home, Mora-Gheller said.

"Many people don't feel comfortable purchasing a home," she said.

"A lot of Latino people think you go talk to someone, shake their hand and it's fixed," she said. "Because of their trusting nature, many get themselves in a lot of trouble."

For example, Mora-Gheller said that sometimes immigrants will co- sign on loans, not realizing the liabilities. Co-signing with a person who defaults may damage the co-signer's credit, too, making it harder to finance a home.

But others, like the Robelo family, prosper despite the common obstacles of language.

"It's gone pretty good," said Ruben Robelo, who parlayed his foundry-learned skills into construction skills, noting his family's operation "can do everything but the roof."

"They work their rears off, rehabbing the properties," Mora- Gheller said. "They are such good landlords that word spreads around the community and they have no vacancies. No vacancies, in this rental market."

Mora-Gheller's fortunes have improved, too.

In nine years, she has risen from new hire to agent to broker.

In that time, the ranks of Spanish-speaking real estate professionals -- loan officers, lawyers, home inspectors, home counselors and realty agents -- have grown steadily, here and nationwide.

She is helping launch a local chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals.

Scheduled to debut Oct. 14 at a still-undetermined time and place, the Milwaukee group will be the first chapter in Wisconsin for the 12,000-member San Diego-based national group.

Mora-Gheller will serve as the fledgling group's chairman. The Greater Milwaukee Association of Realtors is the group's sponsor and administrative center.

"The goal is getting would-be Hispanic homeowners into homes and property in general," said Mike Ruzicka, the association's president. "It serves our members well and helps stabilize a relatively new ethnic group in Milwaukee."

Mutual trust is critical in this market, said Miguel Pesqueira, vice president of community lending for Brookfield-based St. Francis Bank, and Carlos Delgado, owner of Del Realty LLC in Wauwatosa.

"We recognized this market back in '91," Pesqueira said of his bank, local pioneers in hiring loan officers who understood if not shared their customers' culture.

He has seen the success stories of immigrants from Mexico, Puerto Rico, South America and the Caribbean islands.

"Back then, it was general laborers," he said. "Today, happily, it's a mix of general laborers and professionals. The Hispanic community is making the American dream come true and in the process, the marketplace has changed. It went from thinking that service was something they were forced to do, to finding it lucrative."

Delgado, 35, whose parents immigrated from Mexico 45 years ago, said in his seven years helping fellow Latinos buy homes, he has seen their market status change from underappreciated to coveted.

"My customers work hard, save hard, to buy a car and house, in that order," he said. "But they don't speak the language, and they are scared. They need help. You hold their hand more through the process, and they're very appreciative."


For information about the formation of Milwaukee's chapter of the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals, contact the Greater Milwaukee Association of Realtors office, 12300 W. Center St., Milwaukee, WI 53222, (414) 778-4929.

The Web site for the Hispanic professionals group is


Home ownership rate among all Americans in the second quarter of 2004.


Home ownership rate among Hispanic Americans, same period.




Overall home ownership rate in Milwaukee increased to 45.3% in 2000. Hispanics also saw home ownership rates rise.


1990 2000 Change

City of Milwaukee 44.8% 45.3% +1.1%


white 51.7 55.0 +6.4

Hispanic 30.9 33.3 +7.8

Source: U.S. Census Bureau; Journal Sentinel

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