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Jayna Omaye/MEDILL

Data: Research Institute for Housing America

Out of all foreign-born households in Illinois in 2010, nearly 60 percent were owner occupied, a recent study found. 

Cultural values, expectations drive foreign-born homeownership, experts say

by Jayna Omaye
May 29, 2013


Courtesy of Shu-Ju Ada Cheng

Shu-Ju Ada Cheng, who came to the U.S. in 1991 from Taiwan, has owned her condominium in Lake View for seven years. She said she expects to stay in Chicago long-term.

From 2010 to 2020, foreign-born homeowners are projected to account for 45 percent of the total growth in owner households statewide, according to a recent Research Institute for Housing America study.

Nationwide foreign-born homeowners will account for 36 percent of growth, the study projects.

Immigrants tend to be younger, have higher birth rates and desire homeownership, a recent study by the American Action Forum found.

“They’re sure adding a lot of fire power,” said Dowell Myers, a co-author of the institute’s study. “Houses are more useful because they’re larger and if you have a family with kids, you need the added space. Homeownership has always been a value that’s pursued by immigrants.”

The institute was created by the Mortgage Bankers Assn. to fund research on housing and mortgage markets.

Although recent studies show that immigrants continue to affect the U.S. real estate market, experts say different cultural values and expectations drive their desire of homeownership.

“Modern markets don’t exist everywhere, but homes and land exist everywhere,” said Alexandra Filindra, assistant professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Practically every culture understands that owning land and having a home is an important element of personal financial security.”

Although homeownership was not always a priority for Shu-Ju Ada Cheng, who was born in Taiwan and owns a condominium in Lake View, she said it made sense to buy a home once she decided to stay in Chicago long-term.

“I think from the culture I’m from, there is a general cultural and socio-economic expectation that once you graduate, you’ve established and pursued a career, you’ve established some sort of economic stability … and in the process, you own a home,” said Cheng, who serves as an associate professor of sociology at DePaul University.

“Homeownership may not be the last step … but homeownership is part of the expectation.”

Similarly, Bansi Vedia, who was born in Mumbai and currently rents an apartment in Evanston, thought she only wanted to rent because of the flexibility. However, when she started planning for her future and career, she wanted to own a house she could call her home.

“In Mumbai, to have your own house, it’s a very, very big deal,” Vedia said. “It’s very hard; it’s very expensive … That’s why for my parents, if you have your own house, then you should be in good standing then.”

Yin Kean, who has worked in real estate and has mainly dealt with foreign-born clients, said immigrants, like Vedia and Cheng, continue to affect the U.S. housing market.

“People are coming in as students; people are coming in for businesses: Those are your sources for the real estate market,” said Kean, who currently serves as the executive director of the Chicago Chinatown Chamber of Commerce. “Schools are relying on immigrants as a buying power. When these people graduate, they fill the job market. They become the homeowners of the new market.”

Homeownership tends to increase as immigrants remain longer in the U.S., said Myers, who serves as a professor of demography and urban planning at the University of Southern California. Because there are large immigrant communities in Chicago, Filindra, who is from Greece, also said people settle in the city to be closer to family, friends and people who are from their native country.

“Homeownership is often regarded as the American Dream,” Myers said. “So when people come to America, they want to live part of the dream and buy a piece of the land.”

However, Cheng said although there are immigrants who either cannot afford or do not desire homeownership, she is still hesitant to use the term American Dream.

“It’s as if the American Dream is better than their original dream,” Cheng said. “I think using the American Dream is only part of the picture, but we are ignoring the fact that they probably already have this dream, this expectation, in their own country.”

Similarly, Filindra said many immigrants desire homeownership in their own countries, but come to America to seek more opportunities.

“The American Dream intersects with the immigrant dream,” Filindra said. “It’s not whether you want to own a home or not, it’s whether you can. And that’s what America actually gives you: The fact that you have a chance of buying a home, that the conditions allow for homeownership, whereas in other countries, it’s out of the question for many people.”