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The Plain Dealer

Cleveland-Area Latinos Get Help Becoming Homeowners

By Susan Glaser; Assistant Plain Dealer Homes Editor

13 March 2005
Copyright © 2005 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.


Home-buying workshops

When: The next weeklong workshop begins Monday, March 21.

Where: Spanish American Committee, 4407 Lorain Ave., Cleveland.

Information: Call 216-961-2100.

Also: Neighborhood Housing Services and Third Federal Savings & Loan offer home-buying education classes and counseling in Spanish. For information on the NHS program, call Elizabeth Sanchez at 216- 458-4663. For information on Third Federal's Home Today program, call Amy Ramos at 216-429-5044.

Jennifer Rosado walked into the vinyl-sided, two-story bungalow on West 61st Street and she fell in love.

With the kitchen, the bathrooms, even the floors.

"The first thing the kids did when we moved in was roll on the carpet," said Rosado, a mother of three. "We didn't have carpet in our other place. The floor was always cold."

It was the American dream come true for Rosado and her husband, Javier Gonzalez, a native of Puerto Rico. The new homeowners are among the first success stories for a program launched a year ago by the Spanish American Committee, which seeks to boost homeownership rates among area Latinos.

In Cleveland, as in the nation, Latino homeownership rates lag behind the population at large. Census figures for 2000 show that 41 percent of Cleveland Latinos owned their homes, compared to about 50 percent of the total population.

Leo Serrano, executive director of the Spanish American Committee, said first-generation Latinos may be slow to buy property because they're unsure how long they'll be in the United States. Second-generation Latinos, consequently, often don't have their parents as role models when it comes to buying a house.

"If nobody in your family has owned a house, it's a huge, scary process," said Serrano.

Add to that any language barriers, and for many, the process of buying a house is just too intimidating.

It's Rose Bardwell's job to demystify it. As the committee's housing program coordinator, she offers a weeklong class once a month held every other month in Spanish to cover the basics of home buying.

Promoting homeownership hasn't always been part of the mission of the Spanish American Committee, a United Way agency that was founded in 1966 to assist with employment, education and language issues.

In recent years, however, clients have clamored for advice on home-related topics, from rental disputes to monthly budgeting to foreclosure prevention. Other local organizations offer help to first-time home buyers, but none targets its services exclusively to Latinos. Several local banks and insurance companies, along with mortgage financier Freddie Mac, provide funding for the program.

The committee's goals extend beyond the benefits to individual homeowners, according to Serrano. Boosting homeownership rates ultimately stabilizes neighborhoods and helps Latinos build wealth.

About 75 people have taken the classes, offered first last June. Ten are now homeowners.

For 21/2 hours in the evening, five nights in a row, Bardwell and a colleague cover everything from cleaning up a credit report to choosing a real estate agent to reading a loan document. Bankers, insurance agents and lawyers attend and explain their roles in the process.

Bardwell's involvement doesn't end when the class does. She also offers one-on-one counseling for as long as is necessary to get a motivated buyer into a house.

"I don't want people to get into a house if they're not ready," said Bardwell. "Our end goal is homeownership, whether it takes a year, two years. We take them through the process."

Credit issues whether bad credit or no credit are a common barrier.

Maritza Cedeno started looking for a house last summer, then put her search on hold after she talked to Bardwell.

"I wanted a better house than the banks said I could afford," she said. So she's concentrating now on paying off her debt before adding a mortgage to her monthly bills.

She hasn't taken her eyes off the prize. "My goal is to move into a better neighborhood, where my kids can ride their bikes and play outside and do all those things," said Cedeno, the mother of two boys, ages 6 and 9.

Efrain Soto, too, was forced to confront some credit issues before looking for a house. An unpaid loan for a computer he bought years ago was affecting his credit rating and ultimately his ability to buy a house. With the help of Bardwell's negotiating skills, he took care of the debt, and started looking at houses last fall.

"I had stacks of listings," he said. "I learned what square footage was and what I needed for me and my family."

When he found the perfect house, Bardwell told him he couldn't afford it. He hadn't figured in the cost of private mortgage insurance, or PMI, which increased the monthly payment out of his price range.

"My heart broke," he said. "I was aiming too high."

It wasn't long before he found another house, this one more affordable. He and his family moved in Dec. 30.

Soto, who works at the Spanish American Committee as the employment program coordinator, wanted to give his three daughters a sense of permanence, as well as a healthier, safer place to call home. The family had been forced to leave a rental house because of a black mold problem, which made his kids sick.

"If not for the program, I would not be a homeowner today," said Soto. "My kids used to tell me, 'Daddy, can we move?' Now they tell me, 'Daddy, I want to stay here forever.' "

Rosado and Gonzalez, too, weren't always confident they would make it.

"I thought it was impossible for us to get a house," said Gonzalez, primarily because he and his wife were unable to save up money for a down payment. But through a partnership between the Spanish American Committee and Ohio Savings Bank, Gonzalez, 30, and Rosado, 23, qualified for a $3,000 grant to be used for a downpayment.

First, though, they had to pay off their debt. So last summer, Rosado, with the help of Bardwell, set out to negotiate payment plans with her creditors.

Paying off her credit cards means she has little money left over for things like furniture. So her dream house sits largely empty.

But that's OK with Rosado, who recalls the joy she felt on moving day last October.

"I can still remember the feeling," she said. "I thought, 'This can't be our house. Is it really ours?' "

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