People with a limited proficiency in English — LPEs to the academics — total nearly 21 million. Of these, some 5.3 million are heads of households. That’s about 4.5 percent of all households in the United States. The question for the housing community is how to reach them and turn them into homeowners.

A huge, millions-strong pool of potential homebuyers awaits real estate professionals who can find a way to tap it.

People with a limited proficiency in English — LPEs to the academics — total nearly 21 million, according to Census Bureau data tabulated in a report from the Urban Institute, a non-partisan think tank based in the Nation’s Capital.

Of these, some 5.3 million are heads of households, according to the Bureau’s 2016 American Community Survey. That’s about 4.5 percent of all households in the United States.

And of these, close to 60 percent (3.2 million) speak Spanish, 20 percent speak Asian or Pacific Island languages and 15 percent speak other Indo-European languages.

A federal interagency website on limited English proficiency defines these people as those who do not speak English as their primary language and have a limited ability to read, speak, write or even understand English.

The question for the housing community — realty brokers and agents, mortgage professionals and homebuilders — is how to reach them and turn them into homeowners. We’ll try to help answer that in a moment. First, a few more stats from the UL report to wet your whistle even further:

  • According to the ACS, of the 39 million Spanish-speaking people in the United State, 16.2 million — a whopping 42 percent — don’t speak English “very well.”
  • The percentage is even higher (55 percent) among the 3.2 million people whose primary language is Chinese, Mandarin and Cantonese. But the highest percentage (59 percent) of the 1.5 million U.S. residents who speak Vietnamese don’t converse in English well.
  • Nearly 28 percent of the LEP population resides in California. Indeed, the Golden State is one of four that account for more than 60 percent of the LEP population. The other three states are Texas, New York and Florida.
  • The largely academic paper found that English proficiency in a neighborhood is a strong indicator of the home ownership rate. By controlling for the other factors that influence homeownership — such as income, age, race or ethnicity — the authors found that ZIP codes with a higher share of LEP residents have ownership rates that are 5 percent below those ZIP codes with even a median share of LEP folks.

Culture is key

Both Marisa Calderon and James Park say they are extremely passionate about reaching members of their respective LEP populations. And both Calderon, the executive director of the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals, and Park, National Chairman Emeritus of the Asian Real Estate Association of America, say the housing sector is not doing much to turn these folks into homeowners.

“I don’t think industry is doing nearly enough,” Park told Inman News.

Calderon agrees, saying “there’s not a sufficient number of people (within the sector) with the right skill sets and language sets.” Cultural skills, she ventured in a telephone interview, “are just as important as language. Language is helpful, to be sure. But culture also is key.”

For example, in the Hispanic community, other family members are likely to be going on the title, not just the actual buyers. And the children are likely to be financial advisors to the parents. So realty agents and loan officers should expect that, not be put off by it.

“Agents should understand that other family members are going to be at the closing table,” she said, suggesting that the office should include a place where small children can sit and play while the adults go over the normal mound of paperwork.

Who to collaborate with

Calderon also suggested that agents and loan officers link up with the trusted professionals (clergymen, attorneys, tax preparers, local housing experts and other authorities) used by LEP people. And she proposed holding education classes for them on such topics as credit readiness, credit counseling and being a first-time buyer — in both English and Spanish, of course, and where the people you are trying to reach are located, which is not necessarily your office.

The National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals (NAHREP) executive also wants real estate pros to market their services in the print and electronic media LEP folks tend to read and listen to. Radio is much more productive for Hispanics than print, she said, adding that targeted ads on social media tend to work well too.

In your ads, she wants you to include people who look like the people you are trying reach. Only “some” of the wording should be in their familiar language — “it doesn’t have to be all Spanish, just enough to tell people you understand their native tongue.”

Park agreed with many of these points and added a few of his own, most notably when it comes to data, which he believes will tell industry participants which languages are being spoken by buyers and borrowers in their geographic marketing areas, whether it be community wide or throughout the entire metro area.

Government agencies help out

Last year, ARREA, in conjunction with a number of consumer groups, worked on redesigning the uniform residential loan application to include a preferred language question. Based on identified needs of applicants, such as in what language they would prefer to receive financial documents, “industry can make an informed decision on which language to tackle,” Park told Inman News.

(The Federal Housing Financial Agency (FHFA), the government agency in Washington that regulates Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and acts as their conservator, approved that proposal this winter. Lenders can use the new loan app as soon as July 2019. It will become mandatory in February 2020.)

Park said his group doesn’t believe the actual mortgage documents should be in the preferred language. But “providing in-language literature, highlighting key rights as a borrower and providing options for translation services when appropriate can make people feel more comfortable entering” into the home buying/borrowing decision, he added.

How to reach LEPs

In the FHFA study, it was discovered that all LEPs favor in-language documents. But their dependence on them varied, with the Asian community more likely to want both in-language and English resources.

One of the big challenges found by the FHFA is that LEPs have difficulty translating certain financial terms, largely because there is no direct English translation.

Another roadblock: many LEPs do not trust the quality of the translation unless it is performed by an official government agency, a large bank with name recognition or a smaller bank with someone who speaks the same language.

In Asian communities, according to Park, many people do not trust mortgage professionals because the term “broker” has a negative connotation in their cultures. And they often feel realty agents “were just trying to sell you a home.”

The former AREAA chairman said three resources are key to reaching the Asian and other communities — a dedicated in-language phone line, a checklist of important things to consider and an in-language booklet outlining the entire buying and borrowing process.

Lew Sichelman’s weekly column, “The Housing Scene,” is syndicated to newspapers throughout the country.

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