Home-Buying Program Has Cash, Controversy

Janine Zúñiga, San Diego Union-Tribune, Feb. 6, 2006

A major U.S. bank has funded its first home loans to undocumented Mexican immigrants in San Diego County in a move that targets a lucrative, wide-open market while providing new grist for the debate over illegal immigration.

The local program, which uses tax identification numbers instead of Social Security numbers, is similar to programs run by small lenders—and two state agencies—around the country that have distributed millions of dollars to undocumented immigrants over the past few years.

“There is a huge untapped market out there, but it is a controversial program,” said Sarah Lumbert, office director of San Diego’s ACORN Housing Corp., part of a national group working with Citibank to provide tax-ID loans.

ACORN members, advocates on housing issues for low-and moderate-income people and Citibank have quietly recruited applicants in the county for more than a year. Their program has ramped up slowly because applicants need to establish credit and hunt for an affordable home.

But the market is vast and the level of interest in the program is high, especially since the loans typically offer below-market interest rates, down-payment assistance and require no mortgage insurance.

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The local tax-ID program has kept a low profile—no Citibank or ACORN-issued news releases—because of the anti-immigrant backlash that the overall program has drawn. Citibank has processed 72 tax-ID loans nationally since October 2004, half in California.

ACORN officials sponsor weekly workshops at their City Heights office. Their counselors knock on doors promoting the program.

“A lot of people think they can’t apply. So we’ve done a lot of outreach,” Lumbert said. “The people in the program so far have been very persistent about getting things done.”

Often, family members pool resources to afford the county’s pricey market. With Citibank, as many as eight people can sign for a mortgage.

As passionate as real estate professionals are about the program, critics are just as passionate in attacking it.

“We’re seriously looking at getting these banks charged with aiding and abetting someone who’s a criminal,” said William Gheen, president of the national group Americans for Legal Immigration. “Illegal aliens are criminals.”

Gheen says the program encourages illegal immigration. And Americans, he argues, are losing loans to undocumented immigrants.

“It’s highly offensive to our legal citizens who have to jump through hoops with their credit files to get home loans and they’re giving loans to people who have no credit whatsoever,” Gheen said.

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Citibank and ACORN Housing offer the program in Miami; New York City; Jersey City, N.J.; Baltimore; Washington, D.C.; Chicago; Bridgeport, Conn., and at all of ACORN Housing’s 12 California offices.

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