Creating a Home in St. Louis
When individuals are able to purchase homes within their means, it’s a win for both themselves and the surrounding community. Purchasing a home often provides a foundation for long-term wealth and a stronger stake in the neighborhood. In order to ensure that housing is readily accessible to immigrants, St. Francis Community Services Southside Center is focusing on housing accessibility through their membership in the Immigrant Housing Coalition and their individualized case management program. Through gathering banks and community stakeholders to offer products which meet immigrants’ needs and educating individual clients on finances, St. Francis Community Services Southside encourages increased access to homeownership on both a systemic and an individual level.
When Housing Isn’t Equitable
Though home ownership is often thought of as a key way to increase wealth, home ownership has not worked equitably for everyone, in particular for immigrants. A 2015 report conducted by the Immigrant Housing Project of St. Louis found that 39.6 percent of St. Louis’ foreign-born community are homeowners, compared with 46 percent of the native-born community. It found an alarming difference in denial rates of mortgages, with Latino individuals denied at 20 percent compared with white St. Louis residents who are denied 14 percent of the time.
Homeownership rates also differ significantly between individuals with citizenship and those without it. 65 percent of immigrants who are naturalized citizens are homeowners in the St. Louis area. Conversely, only 23.1 percent of undocumented individuals own their own homes. This is most likely the result of many factors, including lower economic power and the consistent uncertainty facing undocumented individuals, preventing them from fully engaging in their community.
The 2018 State of Hispanic Homeownership study remarks that “faced with the prospect of deportation and separation from U.S. citizen children (and relatives), it is likely that undocumented individuals will begin to retreat into the shadows.” This uncertainty is one of the key obstacles to Latino home ownership that this study identified, along with the lack of affordable units available for purchase.” Despite this challenge, nationally rates of Latino homeownership have increased every year for three years, the only racial group to do so.
Immigrant Housing Coalition: Focusing on Accessibility for Immigrants
Several local nonprofits have joined together under the Immigrant Housing Coalition, each committed to bringing their own expertise working with housing in the St. Louis area to increase the rate of immigrant homeownership throughout the city. In addition to St. Francis Community Services, these groups include the Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates, Kingdom House, Beyond Housing, International Institute, Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council, and Caring Ministries, Inc.
Key to this effort is Juan Narvaez, Americorps Vista and Immigrant Housing Project Coordinator at St. Francis Community Services Southside. Narvaez works with St. Louis-area banks and local nonprofits to assess their competence and commitment to working with immigrant clients. This might mean investigating available bilingual staff, their familiarity with interpreters, their cultural competence with immigrant communities, and the banks’ commitment to provide banking products which meet the needs of immigrant home buyers at the many stages of the process of home ownership.
Narvaez notes, “In order for home purchasing to be available, it is necessary that each step of the process is accessible.” An example of such accessibility would be a bank providing a mortgage or savings account to immigrant clients through the Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN), a number that they are legally able to file taxes with, instead of arbitrarily restricting them to a Social Security number. Thus, the family can build their credit score.
In order to facilitate this accessibility, Narvaez has created several bilingual guides which detail credit-building and mortgage lending products for the immigrant community. These guides, and the knowledge within them, can be easily distributed through Immigrant Housing Project members and partners in order to help immigrants and foreign-born communities compare banking products and choose the most appropriate tool for themselves.
Individualized Case Management Services at St. Francis Community Services Southside
Each of the Coalition partners brings their own specialty to the Immigrant Housing Coalition. Southside Center brings its’ connection to Spanish-speaking households through longstanding presence in the South City community, and a focus on bilingual staff and cultural competency. Housing and financial counseling must be done in a form that individuals trust. Southside Center provides a space where families are able to come without fear or shame of their budget or their documentation status.
Meredith Rataj, St. Francis Community Services Southside site director and bilingual therapist, details the importance of one on one case management and financial counseling. “Individuals know that Southside Center is a place they can come for assistance in understanding daily challenges they face. When individuals ask us for financial assistance, this is a moment where we can sit down with each individual and go through their budget step by step, or create a budget if they do not already have one. In addition, we can talk to them about future goals and challenges they may encounter along the way.”
Rataj recently attended the Just Economy Conference by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition in Washington, D.C., and says, “The conference is emblematic of why the work we do at Southside is so important – having access to affordable mortgages and understanding the process of purchasing a home is a part of how individuals gain wealth and long-term stability in their lives. Immigrant communities deserve that, too.”