When Elena Duran began hosting a call-in radio show about homebuying for Spanish-speaking immigrants in Chicago, she expected questions about mortgages and how to get them.

Instead, callers bombarded her with complaints about predatory mortgage brokers who sought fees and offered sky-high refinancing rates.

"By the reaction of the lights and the phone, I knew that I had reached a weak spot," said Ms. Duran, who has spent 20 years as a counselor with Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago.

Brokers who prey on the naivete of newcomers are just one factor holding back homeownership among Latinos, housing experts say. Though the Hispanic population of the United States has been rising rapidly, homeownership among Hispanics persistently lags other groups and the population at large.

Lately, the gap has narrowed slightly, due in part to concerted efforts by neighborhood public service groups, banks, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac. Outreach programs, recruitment of bilingual bank officers and housing counselors, and the growing affluence of the Hispanic population have helped boost Latino homeownership rates, which are now rising more quickly than rates for other minority groups and for the general population.

The obstacles to Latino homeownership-discrimination, language barriers, mistrust among certain immigrants of financial institutions-have not gone away. But experts say the thriving economy has helped banks and housing organizations commit greater resources to helping this population.

At the end of the first quarter, 46.2% of Hispanics owned homes, well below the national average of 66.7%, according to the Bureau of the Census. The figures for Hispanics were lowest among the segments broken out in the Census: 46.9% of blacks owned homes, as did 51.2% of households with less than the median family income, and 52.2% of female-headed households.

But Hispanics are making faster gains. Census Bureau figures show that the Hispanic homeownership statistic is 4.9 percentage points higher than it was five years ago, when 40.3% of Hispanics owned homes.

Among the general population, homeownership rose 2.9 percentage points in five years, from 63.8% to 66.7%. Blacks saw a 4.5- percentage-point increase, from 42.4% to 46.9%; ownership by low-income families rose 3.1 points, from 48.1% to 51.2%; and among female-headed families it rose 3.9 points, from 44.4% to 48.3%.

"Certainly, the Hispanic homeownership rate leaves an awful lot to be desired," said Michael F. Coffey, vice president for expanding markets at Freddie Mac. But "the potential is there. A lot of the recent immigrants will greatly short-circuit what was perceived to be the normal waiting period before people would buy a home."

Banks-particularly ones that rely on business in minority neighborhoods- say they have been trying to counteract the forces stifling homeownership among Hispanics. Their reasons do not stem from altruism: as second and third generations of Latino immigrants begin to prosper, banks have come to view more of the Hispanic population as ripe mortgage prospects.

The government-sponsored enterprises have created educational materials in Spanish to help lenders and community groups. Banks describe a host of outreach programs and flexible lending terms.

The efforts seem to recognize that people from Latin cultures are blending into the mainstream, yet their financial needs are largely waiting to be served.

"This is a population that is very aspirational, that believes in the American dream," said Henry G. Cisneros, the former secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, in a telephone interview. "Continuous, systematic attention to the Latino consumer is a strategy that will pay off now."

Mr. Cisneros, president and chief operating officer of Univision Communications Inc., a Spanish-language television network in Los Angeles, said Hispanic immigrants are the fastest-growing segment of homeowners in Southern California, a geographic pocket dense with wealthy Latinos.

But elsewhere, "the financial community has not yet gotten the message," Mr. Cisneros said. "The financial community still sees this community as underemployed and lower-income."

The infrastructure aimed at helping Latino newcomers continues to grow, but a variety of problems persist. Translating mortgage terms from English to Spanish is not an exact science, and can lead to misunderstandings. Ms. Duran, the radio host who moved to the United States from Mexico when she was 16, said the English term "no out-of-pocket expenses" translates into Spanish as "it's not going to cost you anything."

Immigrant homebuyers face some standard obstacles-accumulating enough wealth for a down payment, learning how the homebuying process works- and some distinctive ones, said Barry Zigas, executive director of the national housing impact division of Fannie Mae. Hispanic immigrants tend to be unfamiliar with the U.S. mortgage finance system, and often arrive in the country having never worked with a bank.

"It's very common in immigrant communities to see what we would call nontraditional forms of savings and financial management," Mr. Zigas said.

The mattress approach-socking money away in undocumented places-poses problems for people when they try to qualify for a mortgage. They often lack records of savings and income.

Financial records are "things that (lenders) tend to require, because we view them as ways that we can help gauge the legitimacy of the borrower," Mr. Zigas said.

With the help of community groups, immigrants are learning about the entire homebuying process, from establishing a credit record to closing a mortgage. Meanwhile, bankers are scurrying to learn about immigrant culture, so they can do more than just hire the occasional loan officer who speaks Spanish.

A case in point is New York City, where 10 banks and eight community groups have formed the New York Mortgage Coalition. These public service organizations counsel applicants, groom them for the mortgage process, and refer them to participating lenders, who usually offer discount rates.

Maria Lemos-Ramos and her husband Gerardo, who moved to the United States from Colombia in 1980, went through this process with the help of Neighbors Helping Neighbors, a group based in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

Ms. Lemos-Ramos, a social worker at an elementary school, and Mr. Ramos, a junior high school teacher, started searching for a home in 1997. Neighbors Helping Neighbors helped them secure a mortgage through EAB Mortgage Co., of Garden City, New York. By February 1998, they had a $171,000 mortgage on a two-family brick house, at a 7.25% interest rate with a 5% down payment.

"Given our situation, we couldn't afford the mortgage-even though we both are professionals-because it's a big house," Ms. Lemos-Ramos said. So the couple rents out the top floor to help with the mortgage payments, and lives on the first floor with their two young children.

Ms. Lemos-Ramos said Neighbors Helping Neighbors orchestrated the whole transaction: after counseling the couple, the community group selected the lender and hosted a meeting between the bank and the borrowers. A bilingual counselor made the couple feel at ease.

"Being native Spanish speakers, when you get nervous you go back to your native language," Ms. Lemos-Ramos said.

She recalls with a wince the time a lending officer asked why she was late with a credit card payment. The mortgage qualification system is "a tedious process, but that's the way it is," she said.

For the couple, mortgage payments are "like paying rent, but we are paying (for) our house," Ms. Lemos-Ramos said.

EAB, Republic National Bank of New York, and GreenPoint Bank are among those participating in the New York Mortgage Coalition.

"Our focus is education, which has been identified as the primary need in the immigrant population," said Malcolm Hall, group vice president for community development and retail lending at EAB, a unit of European- American Bank, also of Garden City, which is in turn a subsidiary of ABN- Amro of the Netherlands.

Republic, which is being acquired by HSBC Holdings PLC of London, has been trying to market to the Spanish-speaking population of New York for the past 10 years, said Phyliss Rosenblum, senior vice president at Republic.

She said mortgage products popular with immigrants include low down- payment mortgages, and no-documentation loans with a down payment of at least 30%. Sometimes Republic picks up the closing costs of mortgages referred by the coalition.

Republic has pamphlets in Spanish on credit and homebuying, does print and broadcast advertising in Spanish, and offers homebuying seminars in Spanish at some branches. The goal is to sign up immigrants for mortgages, then cross-sell other financial products.

"We want to attract Spanish-speaking people to Republic as our customers first," Ms. Rosenblum said.

Because many immigrants juggle two or more jobs and find it difficult to visit a branch during business hours, the telephone tends to be their main connection to the bank. Republic has focused on making Spanish-speaking counselors available by telephone, since the counseling process leads to "mortgage-ready" applicants, Ms. Rosenblum said."We get a lot of Latino customers that way."

GreenPoint has also focused on Hispanic homebuyers in New York. Elaine Dovas, the bank's community reinvestment officer, said GreenPoint made 1,541 housing loans to Hispanic borrowers from 1996 to 1998, representing about $194 million in originations. An additional 232 loans for $28 million were approved by the bank but rejected by the applicants.

The vast majority of these originations were for GreenPoint's no- documentation loan, which requires a down payment of 25% or more and an acceptable credit history. This product appeals to immigrants, who often pool resources beyond the nuclear family to buy a house, Ms. Dovas said.

Most of GreenPoint's business comes through mortgage brokers. To protect the borrower, the bank caps the number of points a broker can charge for underwriting a transaction. GreenPoint's loan officers make house and office calls to accommodate customers' busy schedules, said Ms. Dovas, who also manages GreenPoint's community development corporation.

GreenPoint prides itself on flexibility, and borrowers are not disqualified solely on the basis of credit. "If there's an absence of credit, that's O.K.," a spokesman said. "We will look at other information."

Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac have been trying to foster the types of approaches the New York banks are taking. The Fannie Mae Foundation offers a brochure in nine languages explaining the homeownership process. Fannie Mae has also done several studies about immigrants and homeownership trends.

In 1998, 6.4% of loans purchased by Fannie Mae went to Hispanic borrowers. This represented nearly 84,000 loans, up from 62,000 in 1997, Mr. Zigas said.

Mr. Coffey of Freddie Mac said cultural differences are a major damper on Hispanic homebuying. Bridging the gulf is "very time- and people- intensive," because of the volume of outreach and counseling involved.

The housing market for immigrants is "still a laboratory" in which participants are "trying to get all of the players comfortable," Mr. Coffey said. For the sake of improvement, "whether it's with primary lenders, secondary or government, we've got to try to figure out ways to streamline it all, to commoditize it."

Given the growth rate of the Hispanic population, lenders are likely to pay more attention as time goes on. A Fannie Mae Foundation study placed the number of Hispanic immigrant households in the United States at 17.1 million in 1995, and projected a 21% increase by 2010. This study and others show a correlation between the length of time immigrants are in the United States and higher rates of homeownership.

These statistics should give banks an incentive to target the niche, said Matthew Lee, executive director of Inner City Press/Community on the Move, a consumer advocacy group in New York City.

"A lot of the immigrant homebuyers and homeowners are targeted by-and vulnerable to-subprime lending," he said. Immigrants should "have access to normal interest rate credit, if that's what they are entitled to."

As more Hispanics buy homes, the whole Hispanic population will rise in prosperity, said Mr. Cisneros, the former HUD secretary.

"For most Americans, the equity that they have in their homes is effectively the sum total of their net worth," he said. "Homeownership is more than a strategy for shelter."

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