Millions of foreign-born immigrants have come to stay, with numbers expected to grow each year. And they aren't just Hispanics; they come from countries that don't border the United States as well.

For example, more than a half-million immigrants born in each of the following countries currently live in the United States: Cuba, India, El Salvador, Germany, Russia, Vietnam, and the Dominican Republic. Where are they congregating? Where the jobs are.

"Just 10 of the nation's metropolitan areas attracted two-thirds of all immigrants between 1990 and 1998," notes Frey, "even though these metros house only 30 percent of the U.S. population. Eight of these 10 areas actually lost more U.S. domestic migrants than they gained."

By domestic migrants, Frey means native-born people who relocate. As a result, the relative impact of the immigrant influx doubles. In Los Angeles, for example, between 1990 and 1998, 1.1 million immigrants moved in, and 1.5 million domestic migrants left. Result: a rapid conversion of the ethnic composition of the area.

Tough going

But the mere presence of new immigrants has not created a boom in housing, notes Bob Gardner, an industry consultant at Robert Charles Lesser & Co. in Washington. To the contrary, he says, "nobody is taking care of their housing needs. There's a crying need for more rental housing, but the REITs (Real Estate Investment Trusts) and the other major players are building only to the upper end of the market. So, no, there is no immigrant housing market at present, and our clients aren't asking those kinds of questions."

A report by Center for Immigration Studies helps explain why immigrants seem to be in such a bind. They are coming to the United States in greater numbers, but with fewer job skills, and less education and money than ever before. Homeownership among immigrants has declined too.

"In 2000," the study reports, "only 45.5 percent of established immigrant households were homeowners, almost 24 percentage points lower than the 69.5 percent for natives."

Frey adds: "The '90s were pretty good for a lot of people, but high clustering of immigrants makes their whole set of problems very different."

Many parts of the country will not share in the new diversity, Frey continues, and that will further delineate one region from another. The challenge for builders is to adapt their business to succeed in a new cultural reality.

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