A poster in the window of a Queens, NY real estate office proclaims: “Immigration reform is coming, so buy your house in your country, Colombia.”
It’s far from certain that Congress will enact changes to the nation’s immigration laws. But that hasn’t stopped this real estate agency, and others like it in immigrant neighborhoods, from trading on a growing sentiment among Latino immigrants.
Increasingly reform is not seen as an opportunity for undocumented immigrants to start on a pathway to citizenship or even gain legal status that would allow them to work in the U.S. and fly back and forth between the U.S. and Latin America.
“This is for those who want to leave for good,” a saleswoman in the store explains.
The agency, called Union Andina, also offers apartment to Bolivians, Ecuadorians, and Peruvians who want to go back to their home country. A little further down on Roosevelt Avenue in Jackson Heights another store, called Viventa, offers apartments to Colombians and Salvadorians. There are at least three more agencies in this heavily Latino neighborhood that offer similar services.
These stores are a reflection of how circumstances have changed for immigrants who came to the U.S. dreaming of owning a house. Many never could afford a home. In New York City, about 26 per cent of Colombians own their own home, far below both citywide and national rates of homeownership.
Real estate agencies, capitalizing on their disappointment, are promoting a new dream: going back, for good.
The Colombian immigrant story
Colombians began immigrating to the U.S. in the 1960s, but it was during the nineties that large numbers left Colombia due to a lack of economic opportunity and an increase in violence. In 2003, the Colombian Foreign Ministry reported that 10 percent of the country’s population lived abroad, mostly in Venezuela, Spain and the U.S. Today, an estimated 1 to 1.4 million Colombians live in the U.S., most of them in Florida, New Jersey, and New York.
In the last decade, the Colombian government has tried to reverse the trend of Colombians leaving their country by supporting housing fairs organized by real estate agencies. Agencies – including Viventa and Union Andina – have made an alliance with Colombian banks and construction companies to offer new apartments to Colombian citizens living outside the country.
The terms they offer are attractive. Buyers can take up to 32 months to pay a 30 percent down payment, and five to 15 years to pay the remaining 70 percent. According to U.S. Census data, the average cost of a house in the U.S. is $300,000, while in Colombia it’s $80,000.
Colombian agencies doing business in the U.S. offer houses starting at $300,000. In addition, the exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and the Colombian peso doubles immigrant’s purchasing power in Colombia.
Unlike the U.S., Colombian banks or construction companies don’t care if immigrants are undocumented. “I would say 40 to 50 percent of our clients are not in the best legal situation,” said Federico Mejía, the owner of Su Vivienda Internacional, an agency based in Miami.
Real estate companies say they carefully investigate potential customers, making sure they have stable jobs and can pay their mortgage. They also try to ensure that buyers’ money doesn’t come from the drug trade (which could lead to construction companies and banks being accused of money laundering).
The system appears to be working. Viventa says they have delivered around 3 thousand homes to immigrants in the U.S. But according to Milena Gómez, a professor of urban planning in Colombia, funds invested in real estate represent only 4 per cent of the total remittances Colombians send from abroad.
“It’s 10 million dollars a month, equal to the money Colombia receives from the export of emeralds. So it is considerable but it doesn’t explain a housing boom,” she says.
Why return to Colombia?
At a housing fair last February in Plainfield, New Jersey, the sign outside a small storefront read “Get your house in Colombia: NOW!” Plainfield is a community with a substantial Colombian population.
One of the customers was William Moncada, who came to the U.S. 28 years ago. After immigrating Moncada had hoped to study accounting, but as an undocumented immigrant he was never able to afford a college education. At first he worked at an egg factory and now has a job on the New Jersey waterfront.
“I am one of those immigrants that people treated badly, saying things like: ‘if you don’t like it here go back to your country,” he says. Now, Moncada worries that he won’t be able to afford a retirement home in the U.S. He just wants to go back to Colombia.
Moncada told his story to Marcela Estrada, a young saleswomen at the store. Estrada is from Popayán, a small city in Colombia and arrived in the U.S. two years ago to sell apartments to Colombian immigrants.
“Due to the real state crisis in the U.S., a lot of people lost their houses, and now they realize it’s impossible for them to own a house here,” she explained.
Among those people is Lucero Cortés, a domestic worker who has lived in the U.S. for 23 years. She witnessed the impact of the real estate crisis first hand, as Colombians in the New York area who she worked for lost their homes over the last few years. For the most part, agencies like Viventa are not targeting wealthy Colombians. They are marketing homes to people like Cortés with service industry jobs in construction or domestic work.
A difficult decision
But going back is not always easy. Moncada’s brother-in-law had a hard time at first when he left New Jersey and returned to Colombia. It was difficult to make friends again and feel secure in the streets. If Moncada goes back, he, like many immigrants, would have to leave behind his daughters who grew up in the U.S. and want to stay.
According to professor Gómez, this new housing trend is not just about Colombians looking for a place to retire. “For many people, life is not easy, as an immigrant you work hard, for some of them that might be a reason to return. They have a more dignified life here in Colombia,” she says.
Viventa’s Sandra Amezquita says immigrants want to go back to cities where they were born, but to more expensive neighborhoods far away from where they grew up: “They travel trying to find a social status”, she explains.
Colombians are not the first immigrants to return to their home country to retire. But the idea of immigrants working and retiring in the U.S. has a powerful place in the American imagination.
Nancy Foner, a sociology professor at CUNY, says it’s an idea based on the experiences of Russian Jews who came to the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries fleeing persecution. While most Jewish immigrants ended up spending the rest of their lives in the U.S., Italians, who came mainly seeking economic opportunity often wanted to return to Italy.
“Many of them were men. They came, they were laborers, the idea was that they would work for a while, and they would save money to buy land, buy homes back home. Many of them did, many of them left,” Foner explains.
Not all Italians went back, and neither will many Colombians. But the trend among Colombian immigrants reflects changes in both their expectations about life in the U.S. and a realization that Colombia is more affordable. They also have the opportunity to return to neighborhoods less vulnerable to Colombia’s armed conflict.
For many, the dream of becoming part of U.S. society, with citizenship, has been overshadowed by a desire for economic security.
Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation and the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation. The Fi2W Magazine was made possible in part by The Media Consortium and the Voqal Fund.