A Boost for Buying

Rep. Grace F. Napolitano (D-Calif.), right, meets with workers at Capital Grille in Washington during a seminar on homeownership benefits.
Rep. Grace F. Napolitano (D-Calif.), right, meets with workers at Capital Grille in Washington during a seminar on homeownership benefits. (By Michael Temchine For The Washington Post)

By Mark Chediak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 23, 2005

Jose Lopez, an immigrant from El Salvador who holds down two low-wage restaurant jobs, started house-hunting last September. After building up a decent credit rating and being approved for up to $140,000 in mortgage loans, he thought he would have a good shot at buying a house in Prince George's County.

"When I finally found something, somebody offered $10,000 more," Lopez said. Frustrated by being outbid, Lopez gave up.

Now Lopez, who works as a busboy and food-runner at the Capital Grille steakhouse downtown, says he is ready to renew his search. Last Saturday, he attended a homeownership event at the restaurant, where he and his co-workers heard from real estate professionals, lenders and government officials about how to get help buying a home. That convinced him that there are ways he can qualify for a bigger loan and a better shot at a house.

"I need a home because I have a son," Lopez said.

The sharp rise in real estate prices throughout the region has raised concerns about housing affordability, especially for low- and moderate-income employees. For example, in Prince William County, community groups are backing a plan to subsidize housing for government employees, such as teachers and firefighters.

If anything, the problem is more acute for lower-income workers such as Lopez. And Latinos, who fill many entry-level jobs at service industry businesses such as restaurants, can face additional language and culture barriers. In turn, that can become a problem for businesses.

"Employers realize they may be losing a good employee because they can no afford to live near the restaurant," Erick Gutierrez, housing director at the District-based Latino Economic Development Corp., which provides counseling for first-time home buyers."

"It is the obligation of the area [to help] so that you can realize your dreams," Alejandro Becerra, a fellow at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, told the dozen or so Capital Grille employees who attended the housing seminar. The event was co-sponsored by the institute and Rare Hospitality International Inc., the Atlanta company that owns the Capital Grille.

There were even more government officials and industry representatives at the meeting than there were restaurant employees. The speakers touched on available housing and financial-education programs, government assistance and loans aimed at lower-income borrowers.

While government figures indicate that Latino homeownership is rising in the Washington region, the percentage of Latino homeowners in the Washington area and elsewhere is still below that of the population in general. In the first quarter of this year, according to the Census Bureau, 49.7 percent of Hispanic households nationally owned homes, compared with 69.1 percent of all households.

"We need to be closer to the rate of the regular population," Becerra said.

At Rare Hospitality, helping Latinos along the home-buying path is viewed as a way to foster company loyalty and help moral. "A happy staff makes for happy guests -- it's that simple," said Stephen Fedorchak, regional director of operations for the company. "You do good things for your employees and it will come back to you as a business person."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company