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Initiative Strives to Open Doors for Latinos to Buy Homes

The program aims to demystify the process in hopes of raising the purchasing rate.

September 25, 2003|Shweta Govindarajan | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Calling homeownership the cornerstone of the American dream, an advocacy group on Wednesday launched a program designed to raise the purchasing rate among Latinos nationwide.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute said that buying a home is one of the foremost ways for Latinos to achieve financial security and stability, but that the lack of knowledge among some Latinos about the purchasing process has caused a "homeownership gap" that threatens their long-term economic mobility.

"While homeownership is not typically seen as a civil-rights issue

Billed as a national housing initiative, the program -- which has the bipartisan support of 32 members of Congress and of such national financial institutions as Fannie Mae and Washington Mutual Inc. -- will try to demystify home buying through a variety of educational and practical methods, said Carmen Joge, programs director with the group.

Potential buyers will be able to take advantage of workshops on home buying, credit counseling and other types of financial education. The program also will connect buyers with lenders and provide opportunities for assistance with down payments. Three housing fellows appointed by the group will work within 63 congressional districts across the country, including ones in California and Puerto Rico, to carry out the program's objectives, Joge said.

That kind of thorough approach is just what Martin Jimenez, a first-time buyer looking for property in Los Angeles, said he is seeking.

Just knowing whom to talk with and what to believe are his biggest frustrations, said Jimenez, who has worked as a landscaper and gardener in the Malibu area for more than 20 years.

Jimenez, who lives in an apartment with his wife and three young children in South Los Angeles, said he has made a offers on a few homes but has never received responses from the real estate agents. He had an appointment to look at another property recently, but the seller wasn't there. "[The frustration] is not really knowing what I'm supposed to do to ... get the best deal that I can. I know there's a lot of programs for first-time buyers, but I'm not really sure how to apply for them," he said. "I would like ... someone to guide you, explain your options, what you should or shouldn't do."

Latinos make up nearly 48% of homeowners, compared with a national rate of 68%, according to data from the policy group. Some Latinos who are self-employed or accustomed to paying for goods and services in cash do not have established lines of credit or documented income, both significant requirements for being considered qualified to buy a home, group officials said.

To help people with nontraditional financial histories, the program has enlisted lending institutions that will look at other means of assessing an individual's credit history.

Washington Mutual, which is part of the housing initiative's advisory committee, is one of the lenders that has implemented a loan program that takes into account bills for utilities and mobile or home telephones as an indication of an individual's financial track record, said Peter Villegas, a vice president with the company.

President Bush has also pledged to help minority families, including Latinos, become homeowners.

This year, he created a public-private partnership with the goal of increasing the number of minority homeowners by more than 5 million before 2010.

Jimenez hopes to be one of them. "A house is an investment for the future of my kids," he said. "I want to make an investment ... so they can have a place they can call home."

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