By Christina Fernández-Morrow, Hola Iowa
Owning a home is one of the fastest ways to build wealth, but for many Spanish speakers, becoming a homeowner feels out of reach. Melissa Figueroa Rivera wants to change that. Figueroa Rivera is a loan officer at Green State Credit Union in Des Moines. She began her career in mortgage services three years ago as a translator at another credit union. Translating the mortgage loan process for Spanish speakers made her curious about the process. After some time, the people for whom she translated wanted to work with her directly, not just to translate. She started asking the loan officers questions about what they did and realized it was a role she would enjoy and be able to make a difference for people like her. “Many of us grew up without anyone we knew being homeowners,” she recalls.
Figueroa Rivera was born and raised in Puerto Rico, then moved to the East Coast where she met and married her wife Milly, then moved to Iowa with her and their son. She doesn’t see her role limited to getting Spanish speakers into a home; she is building relationships to help her clients create lasting financial benefits. Clients often call her about a mortgage, and she finds out they don’t have any kind of bank account. “Latinos save at home, but they need at least two months of bank statements to qualify for a loan.” While being unbanked may add some extra paperwork, it doesn’t make the homebuying process impossible. However, she tries to educate her clients on why it’s important to have at least one checking account. Her goal is to get them to trust financial institutions so they can pass along healthy financial habits to their children. First, they must trust her. Once that happens, she finds they are willing to consider other products and services which help get them on their way to becoming more economically savvy and secure.
She starts building trust by being open to meeting in person and not pushing clients to online forms, even if it’s less time-consuming. “They want to work face-to-face. They sometimes come to my office after a bad experience and they’re careful. They want to know they can ask questions, get immediate answers and that I can explain everything in terms they understand. They want full-blown conversations, not just Spanish words here and there.” Figueroa Rivera can see their trust growing the more she works with them, often coming in the form of questions about other financial products and services. Some clients even return to her office with their mail, like credit card offers. She happily answers what she can and then refers them to trusted bilingual colleagues who are better positioned to take care of those needs. Her relationships and connections are invaluable because many immigrants and new Iowans had bad experiences with financial institutions in their home countries or were taken advantage of in their pursuit of the American Dream. “There’s a lot of miseducation and miscommunication around homebuying. Everybody wants an ‘in’ with the Latino market.” Figueroa Rivera has seen the negative impact of clients who have signed documents and contracts that led to losses and set them back. “All the [home loan] documents are in English. I have to make sure they understand it. I take the time to clarify and explain it all to ensure our community feels safe again.”
Figueroa Rivera knows she’s making connections when her clients refer her to their family and friends. “People talk. I get a lot of, ‘hey my cousin, coworker, friend, etc. worked with you and bought a house using their ITIN (Individual Taxpayer Identification Number). I want to do it, too.’ There are months where I close several loans within the same family.” The Latino market is also loyal. While it may take some time to earn their trust, it leads to lifelong clients and positive reviews, so Figueroa Rivera is careful to take time and be patient as she leads them through the process. She knows that the end result will help families for generations. She especially loves helping older Latinos who have held on to the dream of homeownership for decades. Figueroa Rivera smiles as she shares how, “Seeing older Latinos who always had the dream and now feel comfortable trying to buy a house; those who never thought it was possible but now believe it can be because other people like them did it,” is one of her favorite things about working with the Latino community.
But all clients bring Figueroa Rivera a sense of pride and purpose when they finish the process and get the keys to their first home. Some cry happy tears, some hug her in gratitude, and some need a little last-minute encouragement to believe they can be successful homeowners. “Sometimes it takes longer,” she says of helping those whose nervousness gets the best of them. “I’ve seen people shaking at the closing. I stand by them and ask, ‘Have you ever been late on a rent payment?’ They say no, and I reassure them, ‘What makes you think that will change now? You can do this.’”
That’s what her job is all about. Figueroa Rivera believes Latinos can build generational wealth through homeownership. “We can all do this,” she encourages. “Get with the right person and go for it. Dejen el miedo” – let go of the fear.