Between 2000 and 2011, the Latino population in Baltimore grew by 140 percent, even as the city’s total population only increased by 6 percent.
Many of those new neighbors are working every day. Some even have started small businesses. They are raising families and pay taxes, but cannot buy homes in the city because they are undocumented.
Agatha So wants to change that.
“This is a story that is age old,” says So who is working to help identify an alternative lending process that would provide undocumented, tax-paying families in Southeast Baltimore the opportunity to buy a home. “It’s what we call the American dream.”
So, who is herself the daughter of immigrants, first became interested in this issue when she began working as a community organizer in Highlandtown, as a part of her University of Maryland School of Social Work graduate school courses. A fluent Spanish speaker (So also speaks Mandarin and Polish), she was able to communicate easily with the members of the growing Latino population in that neighborhood and communities nearby. She gained their trust, and the residents began to confide in her.
“I was meeting people who were undocumented on almost every block,” So says. “And I found that many of them are working hard, and want to buy homes, but they can’t qualify for a mortgage because they don’t have a social security number.”
Instead, many undocumented workers have international tax identification numbers (ITINs), so that they are able to be taxed. But banks and other lending institutions won’t offer mortgages to people with only ITINs, So says.
“Some of these people have been here almost a decade,” So says. “Their kids are going to school here. They have steady income and pay taxes. So even though they are contributing to the economy, they are currently shut out of the mortgage lending process.”
Currently, there are mechanisms in place that allow undocumented immigrants to qualify for business loans, using ITINs. So wondered if there were nontraditional loan products or alternative lending processes that would allow opportunities for undocumented residents to become homebuyers. So is working with the Southeast Community Development Corporation, which promotes investment in the revitalization of Southeast Baltimore communities. The organization provides homeownership counseling to residents, among other things, making it a great partner to So—who does not have any experience working in banking—as she meets with banks, credit unions and other lending agencies to try to find a solution to this problem.
So wants to convince lending institutions to design programs that encourage those who are undocumented to go through home-buying counseling and apply for mortgage loans—instead of buying problem-filled homes in cash, as some do. By paying cash, they miss out on financial assistance, tax benefits, appraisals and home inspections, among other things. She will try to convince the institutions to accept ITINs and alternative forms of credit when the workers apply. And she will work to inform the residents about their rights.
“Traditional lending processes shut out many, many people. African Americans were shut out for many years, and it unfortunately destroys the economic future for future generations,” So says. “Let’s figure out a way to help people who want to stay here in Baltimore buy homes. This will benefit individual families, but it will also benefit the city of Baltimore. And if it can be done in this community, there will be opportunities to help many other people in other communities.”