District Latinos face challenges in employment and housing, study says

By Carol Morello
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 6, 2010

The recession has been particularly harsh for many of the District's Latino residents, who are heavily represented in some of the lowest-paying jobs and have clustered in neighborhoods where rents and condominium conversions soared during the decade, according to an Urban Institute study.

The State of Latinos in the District of Columbia paints what it characterized as a "bleak picture" of recent Latino employment trends in the city. The study says that many District Hispanics are vulnerable because their education levels and English-language skills are low, making it difficult to shift to another line of work when they lose their jobs. Almost half have no high school diploma, including a third with less than a ninth-grade education, the study said.

The report relied on census data through 2007 and interviews with community leaders and organizations to measure the recession's impact. It was commissioned by the Mayor's Office on Latino Affairs to help determine how to help Latinos thrive.

"We don't have a strong Latino middle class," said George Escobar, deputy director of the office. "The jobs don't pay at a level that allows them to stay and grow a family. The American dream is in Maryland and Virginia, regionally. That's where they flock when they save enough and invest in long-term housing."

The report was released simultaneously with another Urban Institute study on the children of immigrants in Maryland, many of them from Hispanic families that have moved out of the District for less-expensive housing in the suburbs. The number of the state's children with at least one immigrant parent more than doubled between 1990 and 2006. Non-Hispanic white children are now a minority in Maryland schools, the report says.

Because of the migration, several groups that formed in the District to serve Latinos have opened offices and expanded their programs in Montgomery and Prince George's counties.

The Spanish Catholic Center, part of the Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, has seen a 15 percent increase in people looking for job training in each of the past three years, said Julieta Machado, head of social services for the center. It also has started offering mental-health services because of demand from people experiencing depression.

Many clients held stable jobs with benefits for a decade or more before losing their jobs, and in some cases their homes.

"They're completely lost," Machado said. "There are a lot of desperate people that come in and they just cry, because they don't see a solution for their lives."

Latinos make up about 9 percent of the District's population. Most are from El Salvador or Mexico. Nearly one in three speaks little or no English. The most common jobs are low wage -- maids and janitors, food preparers and dishwashers. Construction work also is common, but those trades have been hit hard by the housing bust.

The Urban Institute study describes how, before the recession, Latinos lagged behind in many categories but were holding their own, largely because the typical household had multiple wage earners who held several jobs. As a result, the median income for a Latino individual was $26,000 in 2007, the lowest of any race or ethnicity in the city, but the median Latino household income was $45,000.

The housing boom and bust helped push many District Latinos to cheaper neighborhoods, some outside the District. The most popular Latino neighborhoods in 2000 were in Ward 1, in areas that were especially hot for home buyers during the boom. Rents skyrocketed, so by mid-decade almost half of Latino renters were spending more than 30 percent of their income on housing. As the share of Latino homeowners increased steadily in the first half of the decade, the number of high-cost, subprime loans soared, increasing the risk of foreclosure.

CASA of Maryland has seen a steady increase in clients seeking job training and help with citizenship. English classes have a waiting list 100 students long. Many Latinos say they moved to the state from the District, largely because Maryland costs less and offers them more job opportunities, said Eliza Leighton, director of strategic initiatives for the organization. She said that many have children and are seeking better schools. A recent study by the Population Reference Bureau and the National Council of La Raza found that Maryland and Virginia have low child-poverty gaps, with a difference of less than 10 percentage points between Latinos and whites, compared with a 17-point difference nationally.

The study focusing on Maryland says that without immigrants, the number of children 5 and younger in the state would have fallen. Maryland's largest immigrant group is from El Salvador, followed by Nigeria, Mexico, India and Korea. Hispanic children made up the biggest share of children from low-income families, the report says.

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