American Dream Goes Global

American dream goes global
More immigrants buying land in native countries

By Maria Sacchetti
The Boston Globe, July 7, 2008

She was raised in a little wooden house with a thatched roof in the Dominican Republic, a nation she left behind 17 years ago to clean offices in Boston's skyscrapers and dorm rooms at Harvard University.

But now Vinela Arias is preparing to return home in style. A few weeks ago, she and her boyfriend put a bid on a two-story stuccoed colonial in an elite gated community in Santo Domingo with three bedrooms, a sundeck, and private quarters for a live-in housekeeper.

One day, Arias hopes, she will never have to lift a mop again.

'It's the kind of house I dreamed of,' said Arias, who arranges the furniture in her new home in her mind while riding the bus from her Roxbury neighborhood to work. 'It's mine.'

It is the American dream in reverse: Arias is part of a growing contingent of immigrants who are gobbling up real estate in their native countries, discouraged by high housing prices and foreclosures in the United States and enticed by the possibility of returning home to a better life than the one they left behind.

Developers from countries such as El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, and Peru are increasingly courting immigrants at housing fairs across the United States, including two events in Massachusetts in the last few weeks. Thousands of immigrants are buying homes in their native countries every year, and more private lenders and some governments are offering financing to sweeten the deal.

'It's something that's growing,' said Romi Bhatia, vice president of international operations for the Microfinance International Corporation, a company based in Washington that makes financial services available to poor people in developing countries, including a plan this month to offer mortgages to Mexican immigrants in the United States. 'There's a huge untapped market,' he said.

Buying houses has always been part of the immigrant experience in the United States. An estimated 5 percent of immigrants – tens of thousands of people nationwide – invest every year in some type of house project back home, according to a 2005 survey of eight Latin American countries by Manuel Orozco, a senior associate at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

But Orozco said immigrants still face barriers to buying homes. Often, they cannot qualify for mortgages because they live in the United States, so they send money to relatives who oversee construction of a home. Even when immigrants qualify for loans, he said, interest rates are often prohibitively high.

In recent years, though, more real-estate developers, private lenders, and governments are making it easier for immigrants to buy homes directly, according to government officials and the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington. The Dominican Republic's government is allowing immigrants to apply for up to $10,000 in aid for down payments. In Mexico, mortgage lender Su Casita had loaned about $66 million in mortgages to 1,420 Mexican immigrants in the United States as of early last year.

El Salvador's government started coordinating housing fairs in the United States two years ago because immigrants demanded it, officials said, to avoid getting ripped off by fraudulent contractors. So far, the fairs have attracted more than 4,000 Salvadorans; more than a quarter said they were prospective buyers, according to the officials.

In Massachusetts, Salvadoran immigrants streamed into promotional events last month for the English-named Riverside Gardens, a development in the Salvadoran state of San Miguel. In restaurants in Chelsea, East Boston, and Attleboro, potential buyers watched videos and flipped through brochures, perusing properties ranging from vacant lots for $27,900 to lavish red-roofed villas for more than $200,000.

The costs can be expensive in a country where the average income per capita is less than $6,000 a year, but affordable for immigrants who earn US wages.

'It's all part of the market that we're looking for – the Salvadoran people who live in the United States,' Luis Urrutia, manager of Constructora Universal, which owns Riverside Gardens, said in an interview from El Salvador. 'They should have something they can be proud of.'

The companies are trying to attract immigrants with American-style amenities, including manicured lawns, 24-hour high-tech security, and prestige: Riverside Gardens' home models are dubbed Princeton and Vanderbilt, and the grounds include a gym and hot tub.

Ronald Espinal, 25, of Attleboro, a sous chef who works 14-hour days at an Italian restaurant, owns two empty lots in Riverside Gardens, including one he bought last month for $32,000. Although he will soon be a US citizen, he misses El Salvador and plans to build homes on the lots. He intends to use the homes for vacations or, perhaps, retirement.

'I think about retiring, resting my body,' he said in a phone interview as pots and pans clanked in the background. 'Here, you work all the time.'

For Arias and her boyfriend Ramon Quinonez, owning a home worth just over $100,000 – which will cost them roughly $1,000 a month – will mark a triumphant return to the Dominican Republic after years of sacrifice in the United States.

Arias, the youngest of seven children, followed five older siblings to the United States. The money they sent home built their parents a new house and furnished it with comfortable chairs, a stove, and a microwave. And the money they still send back pays for doctors' visits as their parents age.

Quinonez graduated from college in the capital of Santo Domingo then gave up a job at a TV station eight years ago to join his sister in Massachusetts and to send money home to their mother. Now, instead of a coat and tie, he wears an apron and baseball cap to stack organic vegetables at Whole Foods.

Their sacrifices meant years apart from their families. Arias is a US citizen, but she doesn't quite feel at home on the gritty street in Roxbury where she lives. He misses his career.

Both of them said they daydream about the house at work, though it will probably be at least a decade before they can live there permanently. They are buying the home through the Dominican group Delta Intur Corp., which held its first housing fair in New England last month. Sales are jumping 8 percent a year, said sales executive Haydee Rodriguez.

'That's part of my goal, a better life for my family,' Quinonez said. 'I think about it, and it inspires me to keep fighting and working. I've acquired something – and I tell myself all this wasn't in vain.'