Sunday, February 7, 2010

Latino/as and the American Dream

A couple weeks ago Oregon’s state economist presented a slide-show to our state Commission on Hispanic Affairs that included some statistics on the dismal economic picture for Oregon Latino/as. What struck me most was that in 2008 only 43.7 percent of Oregon Latino/as owned their homes. Of course, 2009 was not a kind year to homeowners and no doubt that already sorry percentage has declined some. Nationally, in 2008, 48.9 percent of Latino/a households owned their homes. In contrast, Anglo homeownership rates have always far exceeded these numbers, peaking at 76 percent in 2004 before dropping slightly in the current real estate crisis. Consider also that Latino/a-owned homes tend to be smaller and less extravagant—compared to Anglo home values in the United States, the median home value among Latino/a owners is only 75 percent as high.

After expressing my dismay at the meeting over Oregon’s low rate, I wondered why even California’s homeownership rate among Latino/as was higher (47 percent in 2005, compared to 66.7 percent for Anglos), despite the far greater cost of homes in most California cities. I assumed it was mostly due to the relatively new arrivals in Oregon of Mexican immigrants, and remembered my high school days in Eastern Oregon where we were one of only four transplanted Mexican families in town, in contrast to the much deeper roots of the Mexican presence in East Los Angeles we had just left behind. By coincidence, a few days later Richard Delgado sent me a link to an article titled Mexican Migration to the United States Pacific Northwest (  in which the authors found that Pacific Northwest Mexican residents earn lower wages and are more likely to work in agriculture than Mexicans elsewhere in the United States. At the same time, Pacific Northwest Mexicans send significantly greater remittances back to Mexico than their counterparts in other U.S. regions. These findings suggest the economic reasons behind Oregon’s particularly low homeownership rate for its mostly Mexican Latino/a population. Putting Oregon into the national perspective, it could be worse, as New York State holds the lowest rate of Latino/a homeownership at 26 percent, reflecting the recent immigrant status of many Latino/a groups there and the outrageous cost of housing in New York City.

I have no doubt that Oregon’s Mexican population aspires to homeownership in the United States in greater numbers than their current ownership rate. Owing mostly to the urgency of providing stability to one’s family, a study of Mexican residents in three major U.S. metropolitan areas found that more than 86 percent declared homeownership a household goal. Almost all Latino/as (90 percent) strongly agreed with the statement that “owning a home is better for raising a family.” Some critics argue instead that renting rather owning housing makes more financial sense for poor groups. See Richard Florida, “How the Crash Will Reshape America,” The Atlantic Online, Mar. 2009, (arguing that homeownership may limit the flexibility of workers, as “[t]oo often, it ties people to declining or blighted locations, and forces them into work—if they can find it—that is a poor match for their interests and abilities”). I respectfully disagree with these ownership critics, and wonder how many of them outside of Manhattan are renters themselves. In my forthcoming book with NYU Press, Tierra y Libertad: Land, Liberty, and Latino Housing, I make a case for equal housing opportunity for Latino/as and establishing the family home as the centerpiece for dignity among diverse Latino/a populations in the United States. In detailing the longstanding structural impediments to housing opportunity for Latino/as (whether rented or owned), I argue that the torch of homeownership that boosted many past U.S. immigrant groups must be passed willingly to Latino/as and especially to Latino/a newcomers to the United States.

I know many of us are working on the housing front, if only to restore the already miserable conditions that prevailed before the current housing implosion. I plan to include housing among the topics I’ll address foremost in future posts. If you have recent or forthcoming articles on housing you would like reviewed and promoted, please send them to me.

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