At home in the suburbs: Malay and David Thao, back left, moved from St. Paul, where they grew up, to Woodbury to raise their four children. They now live next to David’s parents. David’s brother, Tchao Thao, back right, also lives with them.

Star Tribune, Brian Peterson

Hmong follow earlier immigrants to the suburbs

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA
  • Star Tribune
  • July 14, 2011 - 11:35 AM

Like immigrant populations before them in Minnesota, the Hmong who first arrived as refugees 35 years ago are filling up the suburbs in significant numbers.

U.S. census data for 2010 released Thursday show the rapidly evolving Hmong community grew by 52 percent in the last decade. Even more striking, almost 44 percent of the 63,619 Hmong in Minnesota lived outside Minneapolis and St. Paul. In 2000, only 19 percent lived outside the urban core.

The suburban increases were especially pronounced in communities north and east of St. Paul, which remains the heart of the state's Hmong population.

The new suburbanites include David and Malay Thao, who both grew up in St. Paul but are raising four kids in Woodbury. David, a plastic surgeon, has an office in Oakdale. Malay works in his office during the day, but at night they return to the Woodbury home they bought five years ago. They chose it because it is next door to David's parents.

"We wanted to be close to family and close to the city, where we go to Hmong stores and Asian restaurants," Malay Thao said. "The traffic isn't as bad and the housing stock is good. ... It's a better place to raise your kids."

In a decade split between housing boom and bust, Asians in Minnesota -- of which Hmong are the largest ethnicity -- were the only racial group to show an increase in home ownership rates. Among Asians the rate increased to 56.7 percent last year, up from 53.3 percent in 2000.

Black home ownership falls

In contrast, overall home ownership statewide dipped to 73 percent from 74.6 percent, falling for whites, American Indians and, especially, blacks. Black home ownership statewide was 25.5 percent last year, down from 31.5 percent in 2010. In Minneapolis, black home ownership plummeted to 21 percent from 32.1 percent in 2000.

Myron Orfield, executive director of the University of Minnesota's Institute on Race & Poverty, said he believes those statistics reflect discrimination by mortgage lenders. A 2009 institute study showed that even blacks with very high incomes were often denied standard loans and offered subprime loans of the type that spurred the foreclosure crisis.

"A black family with an income of $157,000 is more likely to have a subprime loan than whites with a $40,000 income," Orfield said. "Our data showed saturation of predatory loans in north Minneapolis."

Tim Thompson, president of the Housing Preservation Project in St. Paul, noted that north Minneapolis was the "heart of the foreclosure storm." It's the same area that was hit by a tornado in May.

"Obviously, it's a big setback," he said. "There are efforts to figure out how to get those under-served communities into home ownership at a greater rate. Now the big problem for low-income people is qualifying for mortgages."

Hmong heart beats in the east

For the Hmong, St. Paul remains the heart of the community, with almost 28,600 people of Hmong descent living in the city. That's a 17 percent increase from 2000. Minneapolis lost nearly a quarter of its Hmong residents but still ranked second in Hmong population with 7,250 people.

It was suburbs that showed the big proportional increases in Hmong residents. Brooklyn Park, Brooklyn Center, Maplewood, Oakdale and Woodbury each has more than 1,000 Hmong residents.

Lee Pao Xiong, director of the Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University in St. Paul, said people are "living their American dream."

"Like any other community, as the Hmong accumulate more wealth, they move out to the suburbs," he said. "Housing in the inner city is quite small and expensive. Many people moved out and built houses or bought newer homes with three and four bedrooms. They also have room to do some gardening."

Factors driving Hmong moves

Xiong said he believes the census undercounts the local Hmong population, which he estimated at 70,000. He theorized that the nearly 22,000-person jump between 2000 and 2010 reflects secondary migration from states like California, as well as about 8,000 refugees who arrived here between 2000 and 2005 as the last big overseas refugee camps closed.

Hmong move to Minnesota for schools and jobs, he said. Family remains a force. Many homes contain three generations, and even suburban Hmong tend to live near enough to St. Paul to easily visit relatives or shop at a Hmong store.

"I live in Maplewood, but I can see St. Paul from there," Xiong said.

St. Paul real estate agent Yee Chang, who works with many Hmong clients, wonders if the census is already dated. He said some suburban Hmong have lost homes to foreclosure and others are moving back to St. Paul as kids grow up and big houses lose their attraction.

"The inner city continues to be a draw," he said.

Chang bridles at the use of "Hmong" to label the community. More than three decades after the first refugees arrived in the United States, it's time to start talking about Hmong-Americans, he said.

"We are a completely different community now," Chang said. "With 'Hmong,' we become perpetual foreigners. We don't have too many people here who just stepped off the plane."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380

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