Georgia Law Chills Latino Home-Buying Market

Jenny Jarvie, Los Angeles Times, June 19, 2006

ATLANTA—Two months ago, all Alina Arguello had to do to find Latino home buyers was put up a sign and answer her phone.

But ever since Georgia passed one of the most stringent and far-reaching immigration laws in the nation, the number of Latino buyers who call the Re/Max agent’s home office in suburban Atlanta has dwindled from about 10 to two a day.

“We’re seeing a drastic drop,” she said. “There’s just a tremendous amount of people who want homes, but are not calling.” Many real estate agents and mortgage providers who cater to Spanish-speaking immigrants across Georgia say that the flourishing Latino home buying market has faltered since April, when Gov. Sonny Perdue signed the Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act.

Almost immediately, Latino home buyers pulled out of contracts. Some who had already bought, put their homes on the market. And many prospective buyers stopped searching for homes.

Although Georgia’s new legislation does not prohibit illegal immigrants from owning property, many wonder whether they will want to live in Georgia when it begins to come into effect in July 2007.

The law will require companies with state contracts to verify employees’ immigration status, penalize employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants, curtail many government benefits to illegal immigrants and require that jailers check the immigration status of anyone who is charged with a felony or driving under the influence.

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In Georgia—home to the second-fastest growing Latino population in the nation—37% of Latinos are homeowners, according to the 2000 census. The number of homes purchased by Latinos in metro Atlanta jumped from about 3,500 in 1999 to 8,500 in 2004, according to data from the Home Mortgage Disclosure Act.

But a $150,000 suburban ranch with a big yard is no longer as appealing to those who fear they—or their loved ones—could lose their jobs.

“This new law is definitely putting some brakes on Latino home buying,” said Carlos Mata, vice president of HomeBanc en Español, a bilingual bank based in Atlanta, who said that based on the last two months, he doubted whether his company would reach its financial goal by the end of the year.

“I call it the public enemy No. 1 of the Hispanic housing market in Atlanta. Nothing—not the economy or the interest rates—threaten it so much.” On April 17, when Perdue signed the legislation, many real estate agents here took calls from despondent clients.

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“If someone is here illegally,” he said, “buying a house would probably not be a wise investment.” But not all of the Latino immigrants who are uncertain about investing in Georgia property are illegal.

“A lot of people are connected one way or another to the undocumented,” said Mata, who founded HomeBanc en Español in 2002. “They are saying: What will happen to my wife, my husband, my mother?”

Dioris Medina, a Re/Max agent in Tucker, has two clients who are legal immigrants who planned to relocate from Virginia to Georgia. They have already signed their contract, but are having second thoughts about whether they would feel welcome in Georgia.

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“To some degree, everyone is sitting on the fence a little bit,” said Gary Acosta, co-founder of the National Assn. of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals. “If the national legislation is not intelligent, if it really restricts the opportunity of Latinos, it would be a major blow to the housing industry.”

Acosta’s organization, which has 17,000 members, recently projected that from 2002 to 2012, 40% of first-time home buyers in the U.S. will be Latino.

If the Latino housing market were to falter, Acosta warned, it would affect every segment of the housing industry. Realtors who do not set out to cater to Latinos would suffer if fewer people were looking for houses.

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