Latino homeowners getting ahead, blacks not so much
It took 19 years of salting away money for a down payment, plus help from her familia, for Jenny Soriano to buy her own home in Hillsboro. That enabled the former waitress, an immigrant from Mexico City, to reunite under the same roof with her three adult children, plus their partners and two grandchildren.
"My culture likes all family together," said Soriano, 48.
More and more Latino families here are achieving the American dream of homeownership. But that's in sharp contrast to African-American families, who are moving in the opposite direction.
New Census Bureau data released in December showed an estimated 35.5 percent of Portland's Hispanic households owned their homes in 2017, compared to only 28.4 percent of African-Americans. That prompted Portland housing expert Tom Cusack to look deeper into longer-term trends, and he found the share of Hispanic households owning homes in Portland has grown nearly 17 percent since 2000, while dropping more than 25 percent for African-American households.
Cusack, a retired federal housing director for Oregon who now publishes the Oregon Housing Blog, determined that the homeownership rate for Hispanic households has risen since 2000 in every Portland-area city or unincorporated area that had at least 500 Latino households back then.
But the homeownership rate for Portland's African-Americans has been falling pretty much steadily for nearly a half-century, he said. "It's more or less a straight line down from 1970 to current."
Since 1970, Portland has had a net increase of only 16 African-American homeowners per year, on average.
Homeownership is a key socioeconomic gauge because it's the primary ladder for American families to rise to the middle class and achieve a higher standard of living. Homeowners are more able to build wealth that can be passed down to future generations. They become more stable, and more invested in their schools and communities.
Experts cite many complex cultural and historical reasons why black and brown families have fared so differently in pursuit of homeownership here.
• Racist "redlining" by real estate professionals and home lenders that confined blacks within red lines on maps in inner North and Northeast Portland.
• The 1948 Vanport Flood, which disproportionally displaced black families living just north of Portland in the city of Vanport.
• Condemnation of homes in black neighborhoods to make way for the construction of Interstate 5 and Memorial Coliseum.
• Planned expansion of Emanuel Hospital, which leveled, via condemnation, many black-owned homes and businesses — though the expansion never took place.
• Predatory home lending that heavily targeted African-Americans in the run-up to the Great Recession.
• Differences in family structure and values.
• Gentrification of inner North and Northeast Portland.
• The immigrant experience for Latinos.
"Historically, the African-American community has been pushed away" from Portland, while the Latino population keeps expanding due to larger family sizes and new waves of immigrants, said Ernesto Fonseca, chief executive officer of Hacienda Community Development Corp., a Portland nonprofit that provides Latinos and others with affordable rentals and helps them move into homeownership.
The "immigrant story" is a vital distinction for Latinos, said Felicia Tripp Folsom, deputy director of the Portland Housing Center, which helps low-income families buy homes. That makes it almost unfair to compare black and brown homeownership rates, Tripp Folsom said. She is more apt to compare homebuying among Hispanics and recent African immigrants struggling to advance themselves.
She also sees different economic circumstances among the Hispanic and African-American couples and families who approach the Portland Housing Center for help buying homes.
"Generally speaking, African-Americans tend to have the lowest incomes, credit scores and savings in customers in our pipeline," Tripp Folsom said.
The median savings for an African-American client seeking the nonprofit's assistance was only $902, she said, versus $2,600 for Hispanics and $4,000 for white, non-Hispanics.
Homeownership a 'cultural need'
Soriano, who moved from restaurant work into a property management job five years ago, scraped together a $25,000 down payment to buy her Hillsboro house for $489,000 in December 2017. She was able to land a conventional mortgage because her 25-year-old son, a welder, co-signed the loan with his wife, and they get help paying the mortgage from her 23-year-old daughter and 21-year-old son.
Soriano said she was fortunate to live many years in an affordable apartment complex owned by Bienestar, a nonprofit that provides housing for farmworkers and other Latinos in Washington County. But they could have only four people living in the apartment, she said, and she wanted to unite the entire extended family.
So they pooled their resources and bought a six-bedroom house with three bathrooms, shared by nine people.
"Homeownership is a cultural need almost" for Latinos, Fonseca said.
For decades in Latin America, he explained, banks didn't provide home loans. So extended families often pooled their money to buy a piece of land, then built one new room at a time through sweat equity, over several years.
Latino immigrants here still tend to have more children than most other cultures, Fonseca said, yet rental apartments have strict limits on how many people may share a bedroom, as Soriano's family experienced.
"It is better for us to live in bundles than under the restriction of a rental property," he said.
Latinos also traditionally want to paint their houses bright colors, share their food in a communal fashion and enjoy loud music, Fonseca said.
"We tend to experience food, sound and color in a very different fashion than (non-Hispanics) do," he said. "That kind of freedom you cannot find in a multifamily property. We want to make that space our space."
The Portland Housing Center recognizes the distinct differences between the Latino and African-American experiences by offering "culturally specific" home-buying classes for both groups, Tripp Folsom said.
In those classes, the nonprofit offers pointers for saving up money for down payments, the ins and outs of fixed-interest vs. variable loans and other insights.
Sense of hopelessness
One of the barriers for African-Americans is past stories about people losing their homes to foreclosure and predatory loans. During the subprime loan craze that sparked the Great Recession, analysts say, an unprecedented amount of family wealth was drained from African-Americans after those loan interest rates exploded and people lost their homes via foreclosure.
"If all you hear about is disparities and not the opportunities, that isn't helpful," Tripp Folsom said.
Felipe Ruiz, who is part-Latino and part-African-American, has seen the issue from the lens of both communities.
African-Americans in particular can have a sense of hopelessness when it comes to buying a home, Ruiz said. "Their belief system is, I believe, tainted by situations that have happened. If it hasn't happened to them, it happened to their parents or their grandparents," he observed.
"Their confidence isn't all it should be."
After working in the real estate loan industry, he saw the reality of how blacks going for a bank loan were treated differently than whites.
But Ruiz, who grew up in North Portland near Jefferson High School, also spent some time in the Bay Area, and observed how immigrant families helped each other. "Their cultures invest in one another. They stick together. They combine the money," he said.
Ruiz was particularly inspired by a Filipina woman who sent some of her earnings back to the Philippines to help others get ahead.
"I didn't want to be a renter," Ruiz said. So back in 2003, at age 25, he bought a modest house in outer Northeast Portland's Parkrose neighborhood for about $115,000. His parents helped with the down payment and co-signed for the loan.
It's helpful to have a network of family and friends who can help you when it comes to buying a house, Ruiz said.
He and his wife later took the homebuying class offered by the Portland Housing Center that was geared to African-Americans. It was very inspirational, offering concrete steps you can take, he said.
As his family grew along with his home equity, Ruiz sold his Parkrose house last year to buy a nearly $500,000 house for himself, his wife and their three children. Now he's back where he grew up in North Portland.
Getting that piece of home equity was crucial for his advancement, Ruiz said.
"I probably wouldn't be where I am right now," he said. "What other ways do you have?"
Minority home buyers looking outside of Portland
Many Hispanics interested in buying a home in this area, especially the younger generation, prefer Portland, said Ernesto Fonseca, chief executive officer of Hacienda Community Development Corp.
They like the idea of living in a city known for its progressive values, Fonseca said.
But increasingly there's no place in Portland for Hacienda to help prospective home buyers find places in their price range.
Latino families coming to Hacienda for home-buying assistance often can afford a house in the $250,000 to $350,000 range, Fonseca said, and there aren't many of those in Portland. Even Beaverton is getting too expensive, he said.
So Hispanic home-buyers are gravitating more to cheaper areas including Gresham, Hillsboro and Vancouver.
In response, Hacienda is expanding from its Portland base by opening a second office in March in Hillsboro, and hopes to open a third next summer in Gresham.
The Portland Housing Center has also expanded its work to the entire metro area, largely due to the lack of affordable housing in Portland, said Felicia Tripp Folsom, deputy director of the nonprofit. The Portland Housing Center now has offices in Beaverton and Vancouver, as well as Portland.
Find out more
• Portland Housing Center: https://portlandhousingcenter.org
One-stop service to help folks buy homes, including home-buying classes tailored to Latinos and blacks, down-payment assistance and lending services.
• Hacienda Community Development Corporation: https://haciendacdc.org
Owns and rents affordable apartments in Portland and Molalla; home-buying assistance includes financial coaching and matching Individual Development Accounts.
• Tom Cusack's Oregon Housing Blog: http://oregonhousing.blogspot.com
• Bienestar: http://www.bienestar.org
Hillsboro nonprofit will soon launch a new partnership with the African American Alliance for Homeownership to serve Latino and African-American families, and other moderate-income families, to become homeowners in Hillsboro and Washington County.
• African American Alliance for Homeownership: https://www.aaah.org
Portland nonprofit that helps black families get into homeownership.