by Steven W. Bender. New York: New York University Press, 2010. 256pp. Cloth $39.00. ISBN: 9780814791257.

Reviewed by Louis DeSipio, Departments of Political Science and Chicano/Latino Studies, The University of California, Irvine. Ldesipio [at] uci.edu.


Using the collapse of the subprime mortgage industry as a point of departure, Steven Bender analyzes the troubled relationship between Latinos and landownership, particularly homeownership, in the United States. Latinos, like many other poor populations and populations new to homeownership, were more likely to receive subprime mortgages and to lose their homes to foreclosure in the years since the collapse of U.S. housing prices and the recession that followed. As Bender demonstrates, however, Latinos have long been subject to loss of their land and homes. Bender traces this history to the beginning of the large-scale Latino presence in the United States, the period just after the U.S.-Mexican War in the mid-19th Century and to ongoing state efforts to restrict Latino (and immigrant) housing opportunities such as restrictive covenants, zoning laws, and efforts to restrict rentals to unauthorized immigrants.

TIERRA y LIBERTAD’s core assertion that Latinos were disproportionately disadvantaged by the subprime mortgage industry broadly fits with popular understandings of the victims of subprime housing lending. Bender is careful to observe that Latino disadvantage was multipronged in this era. Lower levels of English-language proficiency, weaker connections to the financial service industry, and lower incomes tracked a higher share of Latinos than non-Latinos into subprime mortgages as the industry grew in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Low incomes also ensured that Latinos who had entered the housing market in earlier periods refinanced at higher rates than non-Latinos as their homes appreciated. Refinancing could move a Latino borrower from a prime mortgage and home equity to a subprime mortgage and negative equity in the home. Bender notes that subprime lenders targeted Latinos and in some cases moved Latinos into subprime loans when they qualified for non-subprime lending. Latino immigrant status and larger than average household sizes opened them to predatory lending practices that included the falsification of income of family members, the creation of additional household members for the purposes of calculating household income and, most importantly, the failure to translate mortgage documents into Spanish or to explain the nature of loans with rapidly increasing interest rates. Unauthorized immigrants were particularly likely to be the victims of mortgage brokers who were able to make a quick profit on a loan that the borrower was unable to afford.

While this portrait of subprime lending fits popular understandings, it carelessly homogenizes the Latino experience into [*236] a single, and likely inaccurate, story. TIERRA y LIBERTAD would have been immeasurably enriched by a more detailed analysis of who in the Latino community was particularly victimized by subprime lending and how these patterns compared to patterns in other racial/ethnic communities. Bender’s discussion implies that immigrants with their limited English abilities would be most likely to be the targets of predatory lending, but this is implied rather than shown. Bender also focuses on Latino farm workers as having a history of exploitation in the housing sector, so this might reasonably be another Latino population in the scope of subprime lenders. Agricultural laborers, however, make up a small share of today’s Latino community. In the end, we really do not know from the discussion in TIERRA y LIBERTAD. We also do not get a sense of the magnitude of financial losses by Latino homeowners (again, in comparison to other racial and ethnic populations) or the relative rates of foreclosure. Clearly, the final data have not been collected on these questions, but Bender would have better made his argument about the subprime mortgage industry as just the latest chapter of Latino dispossession from the land if he had offered more analytical detail and comparative analysis.

The dearth of analysis and data on who in the Latino community was particularly victimized by subprime lending and the collapse of the U.S. housing market leads to a separate problem in TIERRA Y LIBERTAD. The book is very repetitive, particularly in terms of Bender’s core assertions about the disproportionate costs of subprime lending to Latino communities, and lacks a clear narrative arc. The discussion skips around over the past 160 years of Latino history, with a particular focus on the Mexican American experience. The loss of Mexican held lands in the Southwest in the period after the U.S.-Mexican War despite the guarantees provided in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ground Bender’s discussion of subprime lending not being an aberration, but rather the latest example of a pattern of denial of rights to landownership in Latino communities. The discussion often skips back and forth between this historical case of state sanctioned denial of Treaty-based guarantees and the current era without a clear discussion of the author’s understandings of what characteristics they share and how they are different. Bender also focuses a great deal of the discussion of Latinos in rural areas, particularly agricultural workers. While rural residence and farm labor once characterized the Latino presence in the United States, it no longer does. To the extent that Latinos paid a disproportionate price in the subprime lending boom, it was in urban and suburban areas.

Bender offers several case studies of contemporary Latino housing environments: East Los Angeles, Miami’s Little Havana, and Spanish Harlem. While these discussions are interesting, Bender does not show how these housing markets represent either the larger Latino experience or how they are representative of the pattern of dispossession of Latinos from land ownership that is the focus of the book; these case studies tend to build on stereotypes of Latino communities rather than on analysis of Latino incorporation and dispossession from these specific housing markets (each of which is quite [*237] different from the others). The case studies do serve an important role, however, in that they expand the focus to Latinos of ancestries other than Mexico. They show the diversity of Latino housing experiences. Puerto Ricans and other Latinos in New York are less likely to own their homes and are more likely to live in substandard housing. In this, they share similar patterns of disadvantage to other poor and immigrant populations in New York and other older cities in the Northeast and Midwest. The Latino housing experience in Miami offers a model of how ownership of residential housing can contribute to the broader development of an immigrant economic enclave. The initial beneficiaries of these opportunities for economic development, however, have in many cases moved on (particularly into Miami’s suburbs), and the new immigrants from Cuba and other parts of the Americas that have followed them have not been able to gain the same advantages from homeownership.

Bender concludes TIERRA y LIBERTAD: LAND, LIBERTY, AND LATINO HOUSING by looking at policy solutions. Here the volume is at its strongest. These solutions include remedial policies as well as structural reforms in the housing and credit markets. In terms of remedial policies, the loss of lands held by former Mexican subjects who became U.S. citizens in the mid-19th Century continue to be contested. Bender examines the radicalized manifestation of Mexican American land claims in New Mexico as part of the Chicano Movement, but then largely neglects the contemporary legacies of these efforts or their potential as a galvanizing issue in Mexican American or Latino communities today. The structural reforms Bender discusses would benefit more than just the Latino communities. A national housing policy, reforms to land tenure practices, and reduced costs for homeownership would serve the interests of lower income communities in general and immigrant populations (who tend to have more wage earners than average even if individual incomes are well lower than average) in particular. To the extent that national policy is predicated on ensuring access to safe, stable, and secure housing for all Americans, these proposals make a great deal of sense. What is not clear, however, is what would trigger a change in national policy from the private sector-driven model that the housing bubble and subprime excesses typified to a more accessible, but much more regulated model that Bender proposes.

Steven Bender tells an important, often overlooked piece of Latino economic history: Latinos have long been disadvantaged in the U.S. housing market, and each period in Latino history has found new strategies to limit their opportunities. In the period since the end of the U.S.-Mexican War, states and localities have taken lands owned by Mexican Americans and other Latinos and have turned a blind eye when non-Latinos have sought to take advantage of Latino land owners. Federal programs in the 20th Century to expand homeownership have not created opportunities for Latinos to became stable homeowners comparable to those provided to non-Hispanic white Americans. This inequity at the federal level was compounded by state and local efforts to restrict opportunities for Latinos and particularly for immigrant Latinos. Slow gains in the Latino [*238] homeownership and equity in the post-Civil Rights era were partially undone by subprime lending, the collapse of the housing market, and the rapid rise if foreclosures that followed. TIERRA y LIBERTAD: LAND, LIBERTY, AND LATINO HOUSING offers an overview of the challenges that Latinos have faced over the past 160 years in achieving and maintaining homeownership. The volume is weaker, however, in analyzing specifically how these barriers and challenges shape the contemporary pattern of Latino homeownership or who in the Latino community is paying the highest price for these policy failures. Ultimately, a discussion of policy solutions must recognize the diversity of the Latino experience and the potential for alliances between Latinos who are locked out of the market for homeownership and others who are similarly situated in U.S. society.

© Copyright 2011 by the author, Louis DeSipio.