HomeHmong AmericanHmong and Khmer journeys from refugee to American homeowner

Hmong and Khmer journeys from refugee to American homeowner

By Jia H Jung, California Local News Fellow

Portrait of an underrepresented American homebuyer

Nu Lee grew up in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, sharing bunk beds with her five siblings in a 13-by-12 room and using a designated portion of the dining room table as a desk.

Her father, an asphalt worker, and her mother, a seamstress sewing traditional clothing and providing alterations, were Hmong immigrants who had come to the U.S. from Laos via Thailand in 1988. Having been unable to complete high school themselves, they emphasized the value of education to their children while working day and night to keep food on the table.

Lee earned a college degree and went on to get a job that helped her save up to buy a car and consider buying a home. When in her late twenties, she and her husband purchased a roomy ranch in Milwaukee and moved into it with their baby son in August 2020, the family joined the 52% of Hmong people in America who own a home.

This is significantly behind the U.S. Census Bureau’s latest homeownership rates for the nation (66%), White people (75%), and the aggregate AANHPI (61%) population.

Hmong American Milwaukee homeowner Nu Lee, in ethnic clothing sewn by her mother. Photo Credit: Nu Lee

Who the “underrepresented” AANHPIs are

The Asian Real Estate Association of America (AREAA), founded in 2003 to empower the AANHPI community with sustainable homeownership, wants to address discrepancies like this.

The trade organization’s 2023-2024 State of Asia America Report revealed numerous ethnic groups from the AANHPI category with persistently low homeownership rates, often despite having had a presence in the U.S. for the better part of a century.

The lowest home attainment among AANHPIs was found among Bangladeshi (45%), Burmese (46%), Cambodian (57%), Hmong (52%), Indonesian (55%), Korean (54%), Native Hawaiian (55%),  Nepalese (33%), Pakistani (54%), and Sri Lankan (52%) communities. 

AREAA has partnered with Wells Fargo to direct a new $100 million investment toward increasing racial equity in homeownership by helping low to middle-income people in the country navigate homebuying processes and become eligible for mortgages. 

AREAA, whose network of 18,000 real estate professionals represent 51 ethnicities and speak 26 languages, wants to make sure that smaller, more underrepresented AANHPI groups do not miss out on the benefits.

“When people ask me ‘Why is homeownership important?’ – it’s because of the sense of belonging. We’re like that perpetual foreigner. There’s so much more than economics, but actual implications of long-term homeownership when there used to be laws excluding us,” said AREAA executive director Hope Atuel.

Hmong American realtor Lor Vang in Wisconsin and Khmer Cambodian real estate professionals Mony Nop and Sophaline Mao in California are also closing homeownership gaps in their respective ethnic communities. They are doing so through activism, leadership, and by simply doing their jobs in a field in which they are as outnumbered as they are in the country itself.

What can’t be gleaned mid-flight

Hmong and Khmer people identify with distinct ethnic groups whose presence in the U.S. both began in refugeeism.

After the U.S. withdrew from the Vietnam War in 1975, Hmong people who had been maintaining a peaceful agrarian existence in the mountains of Laos before the conflict fled to America to survive. Anywhere from a tenth to a half of the Hmong population had already been killed by this time.

Khmer immigration to the U.S. originated from Cambodia in the same year, at the onset of the Khmer Rouge genocide from 1975 to 1979. During these years, the Communist regime led by Pol Pot executed a quarter of the Cambodian population.

Lor Vang, a Hmong American resident of Milwaukee along with Nu Lee, was born in Laos. He came to the U.S. at age three with his family after being sponsored by relatives who had arrived earlier as refugees. 

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, there were only a few thousand Hmong residents in the state; Vang attended school through a busing program launched in 1983 to racially integrate classrooms by transporting students of color to the suburbs. 

Since then, Milwaukee’s Hmong community has grown to 12,500 strong – not enough to fill the city’s Fiserv Forum but one of the largest Hmong outposts in America, along with Minnesota, the Central Valley of California, and the rest of Wisconsin.

Vang, now a real estate agent with eXp Realty, can still count on one hand how many realtors in his area are of AANHPI, let alone Hmong, heritage.

He wasn’t always a realtor but was working as a mechanical engineer after college when he got laid off during the 2009 recession. He decided to try real estate investing to diversify his sources of income because he had seen his father rent out their family’s duplex before.

Once Vang had his real estate license, however, he ended up helping friends and family navigate the homebuying process instead of buying properties for himself. This was so fulfilling that he went full-time with the work during the pandemic, happy for the flexibility to be at home with his kids more often.

AREAA, of which Vang is a member, already had chapters in Chicago and the Twin Cities of St.Paul-Minneapolis. But the rest of the heartland was still an AANHPI representation desert. So, he worked for years with approximately 20 allies to demonstrate that Wisconsin could maintain an official hub for the organization. Last week, the AREAA-Greater Milwaukee chapter convened for the first time, with Vang as president.

AREAA-Greater Milwaukee, led by chapter president Lor Vang (bottom row, red shirt), with AREAA-Greater Chicago members who came out to support the group’s inaugural gathering. Photo Credit: Lor Vang

Having worked with a diversity of clients, Vang chalks up low homeownership rates in the Hmong community to lack of knowledge about homebuying processes and resources, down payment expenses, and aversion to debt. 

In addition to being able to explain why mortgage debt is often part of buying a house, Vang knows about benefits available to low to middle-income or first-time homebuyers, regardless of their ethnic background.

“There are available programs that will give you down payment grants that are forgivable and that are just free, really. Anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000. In Milwaukee, with our prices, that pretty much pays for your whole down payment.” he said. 

Vang maintains a private Facebook page called Hmong Home, where people can connect and exchange homebuying wisdom like this. It helps that he can speak Hmong with non-English speakers.

Nu Lee is a member of Vang’s page. After reading Rich Dad Poor Dad by Japanese American personal finance figure Robert Kiyosaki and Sharon Lechter, she started researching the advantages of calculated financial risks, such as investment properties.

What she learned was eye-opening.

“This is just like Monopoly, you know, the goal is to beat the bank,” she determined. “You take out loans, you buy a lot of houses, and when you buy a lot of houses, then you start buying hotels. And in real life, a hotel is like a multi-unit apartment complex.” 

First, heal: this was always about more than houses and mortgages

In Livermore, California, where down payments are sometimes the price of entire Wisconsin houses, Khmer American real estate professionals Mony Nop and Sophaline Mao see the same initial lack of financial literacy. Prospective homeowners in the Khmer community need to surmount this challenge to improve upon a collective national homeownership rate of 57%.

Nop, a retired police officer who challenged the candidacy of the current Livermore mayor in 2022, is a licensed real estate agent and leader of the Mony Nop Real Estate Team at Compass. He is active with AREAA and has served as its public policy committee chair, representing the entity at the White House Council of Economic Advisors in Washington, D.C. in 2019. 

Mao, an ethnic studies major out of San Francisco State University who went on to work for years as a Salesforce employee and consultant in the U.S., Singapore, and Cambodia, is now a licensed real estate and operations manager on Nop’s team.

The couple, married, did not meet until 2021. But both immigrated to the States with their families in the 1980s as child refugees and came of age in Stockton, California – site of the largest Khmer community in the U.S. after Long Beach, the city of Lowell in Massachusetts, Philadelphia, and the Tacoma-Seattle area. 

Nop and Mao trace the Khmer homeownership gap back to the original trauma sustained by the refugees of their parents’ generation.

Nop remembers the terror of the Khmer Rouge himself. As a young child, he escaped with his family and walked to the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp along the Cambodia-Thai border. Mao, whose family was also fleeing the country, was born at the same camp several years later. 

Nop commenced his American life at age 10 by collecting aluminum cans and working as a child farm laborer. Mao’s family started over without the relatives who had been executed in Cambodia for being educated.

In addition to her duties at Compass, Mao assists a Cambodian American mortgage broker based out of Stockton with loan processing. Ninety percent of the clients are Cambodian and require Khmer language support. They find Mao, who is bilingual, by word of mouth.

Along with the language barrier, Mao sees how low education attainment in her parents’ generation led to the double whammy of low-income jobs and lack of financial literacy. 

This manifests in “thin” or non-existent credit from never having used a credit card. Or being unable to qualify for a home loan after operating only on a cash basis. Or carrying a high debt-to-income ratio after cosigning onto another family member’s debt without realizing the effect upon one’s own financial profile.

Mao said, “Our culture is very caring. We’re very kind to our family members. And we’re also very loyal. It can be great, but it’s very detrimental when you need to buy a home and qualify for a home loan.”

Last but not least is “mattress money” – the phenomenon of hiding savings anywhere other than banks because of mistrust in financial and other institutions. 

Some reduce this to a cultural practice but Nop cites the historical reasons that Khmer Americans might want to keep cash in the hand.

In the couple’s interview with AsAmnews, he said, “When we say mistrust, you have to understand where that comes from, right? So imagine you’re living in the Communist world for six, seven years, and spies are put on you and for any reason at all, the spy will turn you in and say, ‘That family is so and so.’ And they take your whole family and slaughter you. The trauma, the transmission of trauma passing on – that carries on today.”

Mony Nop as public policy committee chair of AREAA, with then AREAA-Boston president Dick Lee, in front of White House while visiting the Council of Economic Advisors in May 2019. Photo Credit: Mony Nop

Amplifying representation when you’re still tiny

Nop and Mao are helping to coordinate the inaugural Khmer RISE Conference. An anticipated 500 to 700 Khmer people from around the world will gather in Massachusetts on May 30 and Jun. 1, 2024, with the primary purpose of healing.

This means untangling the deepest roots – such as displacement and abject trauma – of the global Khmer community’s unique needs in homeownership and far beyond.

“We’ve never really come together as a community. So we’re about to do that on a large scale,” Nop said. He invites the AREAA and Wells Fargo partnership to show up there if they really want to reach some underrepresented people. 

“Chase or Wells Fargo or Bank of America, are they really investing into the Cambodian American people? I bet you they’re not. The reason why is because they don’t have any data to back it up,” Nop said. 

Wells Fargo’s partnership with AREAA will hold fairs in six cities (yet to be announced) to help prospective AANHPI homebuyers become eligible for mortgages and learn about grants and other assistance for making down payments.

AREAA president Kurt Nishimura confirmed in an email to AsAmNews that the first events will likely impact Chinese Americans, Filipino Americans, Korean Americans, and Vietnamese Americans the most. 

Among these groups, only Koreans, the smallest of the four, have a significantly low homeownership rate – 54% – compared to the rest of the AANHPI designation. 

The partnership will target underrepresented subgroups in 2024, complementing AREAA’s civic engagement projects with groups like APIA Vote, a non-partisan organization promoting democratic action. AREAA’s annual convention in Chicago next week will tackle the supply-side concerns of providing affordable homes in AANHPI communities.

Nishimura added that the most important thing in supporting specific groups like Hmong and Khmer Americans is to keep demanding better data from governments, banks, and housing agencies.

Freshly released census data on 1,500 races and ethnicities found 335,919 Hmong and 364,006 Cambodian people “alone or in any combination” living in the U.S., meaning people of mixed race and/or ethnicity were counted, too. This amounts to 0.1% of the American population each, returning the dialogue to the circularity that underrepresented groups remain underrepresented because they are underrepresented.

But Lee, Vang, Nop, and Mao, observe from their separate vantage points that more Hmong and Khmer people are entering real estate. This might be a sign of better and sustained representation of the people who need resources most.

Nop worries that what data is being collected now about groups still misses information about the first immigrants and refugees from his father’s generation who suffered, unhelped, from trauma and never bought homes.

He has been working with a prominent researcher to issue the first-ever State of Khmer Americans in Contemporary Society report – a privately funded endeavor to collect in-depth data about Cambodians nationwide.

Passing it on

Meanwhile, Nu Lee is already prepared to pass on her homebuying acumen and success.

In June, three years into owning her first house, she closed on her first investment property, too. The duplex will one day pay for the college tuition of all four of her children.

Lee recently had her first conversation with her father about intergenerational wealth. He stressed land as the most important possession to have.

“He’s like, ‘If it’s your land, no one can ever take it away from you, it is yours.’” she said, adding, “but I think for my parents, honestly, their idea of a home is a place where they can have their kids be in safely.” 

Lee’s core values are not much different. But once, a house symbolized the ultimate step after getting into college and buying a car. She dreamt of owning a big residence where she could entertain friends and family.

She said, ”I was adamant I wasn’t going to raise my kids in an apartment or in a rental home or in a shared space. I wanted to make sure that my children had the opportunity to not feel crowded, just kind of have a space of their own.” 

Having achieved the dream, she said, “I don’t think I need to have a big huge mansion. I think my idea of home is where we are together and where we’re safe, and where our needs are taken care of.” 

As American homeowners, Lee and her family have secured this and more.

AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Follow us on FacebookX, InstagramTikTok and YouTube. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our efforts to produce diverse content about the AAPI communities. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.

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