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."
Nationally, only 12 percent of employers provided homeownership-assistance programs in 2004, compared with 7 percent in 2002, according to a benefits survey by the Society for Human Resources Management. Advocacy groups have been pushing for companies to take a bigger role.
At the Capital Grille event, speakers implored workers to start the home-buying process. "There are lenders here that can help you get money," Gutierrez said in Spanish. "So what are you waiting for?"
Noe Rodriguez, a Capital Grille waiter who attended the seminar, said he was surprised to learn about programs that could help him buy a condominium in the District. He said he was initially worried that his debt ratio was too high, but now is confident he can find a loan with a decent interest rate.
"I'm just tired of renting," said Rodriguez, who pays $950 a month for a studio apartment in the District. "I'm considering owning because it is an investment."
The process of buying a home can be confusing for all first-timers, but Latinos face some specific challenges. Those include not only language difficulties, but also lack of adequate financial documentation needed to establish a good credit rating and distrust of established financial institutions. Also, officials say Latinos who do not understand the U.S. home-buying process are sometimes vulnerable to predatory lending practices.
"We understand it is not easy," said Luis Carlos Duarte, a counselor for the Hispanic Committee of Virginia, a nonprofit support group. Duarte said it was important for those who want to buy a house to organize their finances so they can make their monthly mortgage payments and avoid foreclosure.
Jose Luis Semidey, president of the Northern Virginia Chapter of the National Association of Real Estate Professionals, warned Capital Grille employees to be careful when selecting lenders and real estate agents. "It is critical that the lender you are working with provides you with good information," he said.
Experts in affordable housing point out that lenders, local governments and nonprofits offer an array of free or low-cost bilingual education programs that help people navigate the buying process. These programs teach buyers about lending resources and the importance of establishing good credit and organizing their finances.
For example, low-income first-time home buyers in Alexandria can take advantage of a $50,000 loan to pay for down payment and closing costs on a home valued up to $312,895. The city, one of the most expensive places to live in the Washington area, offers several other programs to its low and moderate-income residents.
Jeanneth and Orrar Ferrufino, who live in a crowded one-bedroom Alexandria apartment with their two young children, said they would look into that city's assistance programs, but still worried that they may not make enough to buy a house.
"Money is the primary issue that we have right now," said Jeanneth Ferrufino, who works part time cleaning houses. "After having children, it's hard to save."
But the Ferrufinos now have a little bit of an extra incentive to start hunting. At the seminar, Orrar, a food-runner at the restaurant, won a raffle prize of $1,000 toward the down payment of a home, good for one year.
Even with financial assistance, many working class people are still priced out of the market. The median sales price for an existing home in the Washington area was $369,000 in the first quarter of this year, according to the National Association of Realtors. Many housing-assistance programs set limits near or below this level.
In Montgomery County, four example, where prices are higher than elsewhere in the region, sets a $370,533 price ceiling on its first-time homeowner-assistance program. "One of the problems is that there is not enough housing to buy under $370,000," said Tom DeBrine, of the county's Housing Opportunities Commission.
"We have all of these programs, but if they have no place to buy, it becomes problematic," said Tony Cato, area sales manager at CitiMortgage Inc.
It can be done, however. Victor Amaya, who buses tables at Capital Grille, emigrated from El Salvador in 1982. By 2001, he said, he was a U.S. citizen, with enough money saved up to buy a $193,000 house in Glenmont, in Montgomery County.
Now, he estimated, that house is worth $450,000.
Erick Gutierrez is housing director of District-based Latino Economic Development Corp.
Jeanneth Ferrufino, left, with her two children, listens as Caroline Rodriguez discusses homeownership at the Capital Grille.
Rep. Grace F. Napolitano (D-Calif.) at the seminar co-sponsored by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute and Rare Hospitality International Inc.