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Leave West, buy a house;
Property prices luring Hmong from California

By: Lourdes Medrano Leslie; Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), April 29, 2002, Monday

Chao Vue's Minnesota relatives used to mail real-estate listings to his San Diego rental home, hoping they could entice him to the Twin Cities area.

     "They would tell me how much easier it was to buy a house here," said Vue, a Hmong refugee who had lived in California for two decades. Two years ago, he came to Minnesota to stay and soon became a first-time homeowner in Coon Rapids.

     Vue has plenty of company. According to newly released data from the 2000 census, Hmong who live in Minnesota and Wisconsin are three times more likely to own a home than those in California.      Vue, a 36-year-old mechanic who runs a St. Paul auto shop with his in-laws, said buying a home in San Diego would have been almost impossible. "Here there were less hassles, and the down payment is a lot cheaper here than compared to California," he said.

     Other Hmong faced similar challenges in California, experts say.

     "That tells me two things," said Fungchatou Lo, a Hmong social scientist who lives in Shoreview and teaches at St. John's University and the College of St. Benedict. "The economics are much better up here and the housing structure is much better."

     Lo said the availability of higher-paying jobs in Minnesota meant Hmong could buy homes even as real-estate prices rose in the late '90s. But it was the strong job market and family connections that were primarily responsible for luring recent Hmong migrants to the Upper Midwest. "Once they got the jobs, they were able to buy houses," Lo said.

     Many of the state's Hmong are transplants from California, where more than half of the nation's estimated 90,000 Hmong had settled by 1990 since arriving in this country after the Vietnam War.

     California still leads the nation with the highest Hmong population, but in 2000, Minnesota and Wisconsin together had more Hmong residents, 76,000, than California, at 65,000. The number of Hmong in the two Midwest states had more than doubled in the 1990s.

     Home values

     Houses are more affordable in Fresno than in some California cities, but even as prices went up late in the last decade, Twin Cities-area houses were much more affordable than in Fresno, where many of the California Hmong live.

     As of 1999, 77 percent of the houses in the Twin Cities area were considered affordable for persons with the median family income of $63,600, according to the National Association of Home Builders. In Fresno, only 59 percent of houses were affordable by those with that area's median family income of $37,000. The Twin Cities area was 38th most affordable of the nation's roughly 200 biggest major metro areas and Fresno 138th.

     But the median sales price in Fresno was $109,000, compared with $140,000 here, so the Hmong needed to increase their earning power to buy homes in Minnesota.

     Longtime Hmong activist Lee Pao Xiong, of St. Paul, president of the Urban Coalition, said the housing stock is just another good reason for the Hmong to live permanently in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

     "I think people are putting down roots in areas where there's employment, areas where the quality of life is better," Xiong said.

     Why rent?

     Bryan Vue, a cousin of Chao Vue, is a St. Paul real-estate agent who has helped many Hmong renters buy property.

     "They see it as absurd to have to pay $1,000 a month for a rental when they can purchase it," he said. "I think we're seeing a lot of various factors here, but certainly I think people are kind of going toward the trend of taking homeownership to the next level and even going beyond that to investment properties."

     Ilean Her, executive director of the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans, said her Hmong community doesn't believe in renting because people owned homes in their native Laos. To become homeowners in the mountain valleys of the Southeast Asian country, she said, all they had to do was mark trees, cut them down and use them as beams and siding in their plain dwellings.

     "Any tree in the forest was yours, any piece of land was yours, as long as you cleared it," she said.

     Of course, Her said, homeownership isn't that simple in the United States. Hmong residents who can't afford to buy homes are forced to rent, she said, but it also isn't uncommon for people to pool their money to buy a property.

    "If you're working, they go ahead and buy _ that's the philosophy of the community," she said.

.

    Staff Writer David Peterson contributed to this report.

    _ Lourdes Medrano Leslie is at lleslie@startribune.com.

Asian homeowners compared

     Minnesota's Hmong and Laotians, relative newcomers to the United States, had higher ownership rates than their counterparts in California. But among Japanese-Americans, who have generally been here longer, homeownership rates were higher in California. Homeownership rates for Thai were about the same. to the United States, had higher ownership rates than their counterparts in California. But among Japanese-Americans, who have generally been here longer, homeownership rates were higher in California. Homeownership rates for Thai were about the same

<PRE>     .

     Hmong:

                   54%        48%        18%     

     State        Minn.       Wis.      Calif.

No. households    6,735      5,499      9,544

No. owned         3,657      2,651      1,696

     Japanese:

                   53%               64%     

     State        Minn.             Calif.

No. households    1,530            127,113

No. owned           806             81,004

     Laotian:

                  64%             32%     

     State        Minn.          Calif.

No. households    2,159         10,958

No. owned         1,378          3,466

     Thai:

                  48%             51%     

     State        Minn.          Calif.

No. households    266           10,722

No. owned         128            5,504

</PRE>.

     - Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Hmong homeowners

    The homeownership rate for Hmong in Minnesota and Wisconsin was far greater than in California, where homes are generally more expensive.

     Ownership rates:

     <PRE> .

     Minnesota Wisconsin   California

        54%        48%         18%

     </PRE>.

         - Source: U.S. Census Bureau