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Little Saigon lays roots in Houston

Lured by cheap Texas real estate, Vietnamese from O.C. are part of a thriving ethnic enclave.

December 21, 2007|My-Thuan Tran | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — Lan Nguyen had dreamed of owning a house since she immigrated to Southern California from Vietnam 11 years ago. But she and her husband could never scrounge up enough money for a down payment, spending most of their paychecks on rent for a cramped Garden Grove apartment.

Now, Nguyen has moved to a suburb of this Gulf Coast city, where the 28-year-old owns a new four-bedroom house with a spacious game room and access to a pool with a water slide -- all for $200,000.

Nguyen is one of many Vietnamese Americans from California who have flocked to Houston, lured by cheap real estate, a lower cost of living, bountiful business opportunities and a thriving, growing Vietnamese community.

Houston offers a slice of the American Dream to Vietnamese Americans who couldn't find it in California.

In San Jose and Orange County, home to the country's largest Vietnamese enclaves, skyrocketing rents and staggering housing prices -- even in a down market -- have become too much for some.

"At first, we thought California is the best," Nguyen said. "It's sad to move from a place we know so well. But here we own a beautiful house and are very comfortable."

Vietnamese business owners from California have followed, expanding or moving their operations to take advantage of the burgeoning community and the lack of heavy competition that defines the teeming streets of Orange County's Little Saigon.

The Vietnamese American migration to Houston is a typical California story, particularly in immigrant communities where residents found their first footing in the Golden State but left for places where the cost of living was lower and the opportunities more abundant.

The exodus of Vietnamese Americans is part of a larger shift in California: As the economy weakens, more people are leaving. An annual study by the state Department of Finance released Wednesday showed that 89,000 more people moved out of California than moved in from elsewhere in the U.S. in fiscal 2007.

Houston's Vietnamese community, now the third largest in the nation, numbered about 85,000 in 2006 -- up a third in just six years, according to U.S. Census figures.

Community leaders and real estate agents in Houston say they started seeing an upswing in Vietnamese Americans from California five years ago, driven mostly by the city's cheaper housing. Although Hurricane Katrina brought in displaced Vietnamese Americans from Louisiana, residents say the California migration is much larger.

As people have flocked in, Houston businesses have capitalized, reaching out to Vietnamese Americans in California. Real estate agents have advertised houses in California's Vietnamese newspapers. Developers have tried to persuade businesses to expand to Houston. And talk shows on Radio Saigon Houston have spread the word of the booming community in simulcast shows picked up on California stations.

Houston is no longer the Vietnamese community's "best-kept secret," said Thuy Thanh Vu, the radio station's co-owner.

Houston's housing tale is remarkable. Real estate agents boast of clients who sell their California homes, pay for new ones in Houston at a third of the price and have enough left to invest.

Consider Thien Pham of the Vietnamese American Real Estate Assn., who has a client who he said put his million-dollar California house on the market and bought seven houses in Houston, each for $170,000 to $200,000.

Or Vincent Ho, 36, who sold his El Monte house for $600,000 and bought a place three times as large. He paid cash for the $175,000 home and used the rest to expand his Orange County-based business to Houston.

"SAVE $5,000 when you buy a house GUARANTEED," says a quarter-page advertisement in Nguoi Viet, the largest Vietnamese newspaper in Little Saigon. Clients who call meet Julie Vo of Houston Realty Center.

Five years ago, Vo was lucky to get more than a few calls from out-of-state buyers. Now they represent half her company's clients.

Most are second-generation Vietnamese Americans from California, often younger families or empty-nesters looking for affordable retirement. The flight of young families from places such as Orange County is worrisome to some -- underscoring long-running concerns that young families someday will abandon Little Saigon.

The median price for a single-family home in the Houston area is $145,390, according to the Houston Assn. of Realtors. In contrast, Westminster's median housing price is $520,000 and Garden Grove's is $475,000, according to DataQuick Information Services. In San Jose, it's $640,000.

"For what you pay for your mortgage in Houston, you can only afford a rat's hole in California," Vo tells clients.

Vo makes sure to put Houston's best face forward. She picks up prospective California clients from the airport and puts them up in hotels -- free of charge -- for a few nights. She drives clients around the Vietnamese areas, stopping at restaurants she's sure will impress them.

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