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Homes for No Pay

Michael May

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Ramiro Mora snaps a chalk line.
(Michael May)
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Home sales in the third quarter of this year were almost 17 percent less than a year ago. Falling housing prices are hurting everyone who owns a house, and is undermining the entire economy. But one group has been particularly hit hard - Hispanics. And that's because during the housing boom, Latino workers came to this country and found work building homes. In the Austin area, a 2007 survey found 55 percent of the workers on construction sites were foreign born. Now many of them are unemployed.


Ramiro Mora crouches on a wide slab of concrete in a posh neighborhood in South Austin, and carefully marks a chalk line around a square hole in the foundation of what will soon be a luxury home. "There's going be an elevator here, for a two story home," he says, laughing.

An elevator. When this house is finished, it will be worth a couple million dollars. Meanwhile, Ramiro crashes in the extra room at his cousin's place. Ramiro has helped build hundreds of houses in the 25 years he's lived in the United States, but it's been that long since he's had a place he could really call home. He grew up in Michoacan Mexico.

"My house was very small," he says. "It had three rooms, a kitchen and bathroom. And there was 12 in the family, so it was tight. We were happy, even though we were poor."

Ramiro's original plan was to be an architect in Mexico, but his savings were wiped out during a peso crash in the early '80s. He was in the United States when President Reagan granted amnesty to undocumented immigrants, including him. Since then, he's been working here while his family is in Mexico. "My wife didn't like the way of living here," he says. "Over here, you work every day, almost no free time. In Mexico, it's more relaxed. there's more time to enjoy life. Here I come to work."

Ramiro wishes he could be with his family. But here he makes around $200 a day. In Mexico, the same work would earn $200 a week. But it's even been hard to find work here since the housing market crashed. Earlier this year, in desperation, he took a carpentry job for $10 an hour building houses for the national company KB Homes, but after two weeks of work, the subcontractor in charge disappeared without paying him and six other workers. "No one wanted to fight," he says. "People just said, he left, he left. No one had papers. They said, if we fight, they might get upset and call immigration and get us deported. It took me a month, to convince them to fight."

Ramiro contacted the Workers Defense Project, an organization that exists just for these types of situations. At first, KB Homes didn't want to pay the workers, because they had paid a subcontractor to do the work. Almost all the work on residential homes is done by subcontractors, which insulates large companies from investigations into everything from hiring undocumented workers to safety violations. KB Homes wouldn't comment for this story, ut after the workers held a protest outside of KB Homes headquarters, the company cut a $7,000 check. "You got to fight back. Even if you don't have papers, you still have rights," Ramiro says. "You still have the right to get paid for the work you do."

The Workers Defense Project gets around 50 to 60 calls a week from immigrants who haven't been paid for their work. It's gotten worse with the economy, but it happened during the boom times as well.

Workers Defense helped Pilo in 2002, after a subcontractor refused to pay him for more than 200 hours of work, and then threatened to call immigration if he tried to fight back. Pilo is his nickname, he doesn't want to use his real one because he's still here illegally. I met him in his friend's unfurnished apartment, where he's staying. Pilo hasn't had his own apartment since the construction boom went bust. He was once a successful coffee grower in Honduras, but when the price of coffee crashed in the mid-90s, he was forced to sell his home and cars and come here to build houses. In the decade he's been away from Honduras, his marriage fell apart and his son grew up.

Pilo wonders if it's all been worth it. He wasn't there for his son's first steps, or to teach him to play sports. But he tries not to dwell on that too much. He keeps working, and sending money to his family to build a home high in the Honduran mountains.

Pilo says his home will be different than the ones he has built here. Homes here are fragile, he says, you punch a wall and your hand goes through to the other side. He wants a sturdier house. But he wants the American amenities - air conditioning, a water heater, maybe even a TV. But Pilo hasn't been able to send money home for months. There's no work.

Pilo gets philosophical about the situation. He says he feels sorry for the United States, because the country has helped him so much, even if some Americans don't want him here. But he says the government doesn't have to threaten him with deportation or workplace raids anymore. He says the economy is forcing immigrants to leave, because it's impossible to live in the United States anymore. He plans to be back with his son in Honduras by the new year, where he can start building his own home.

  • Music Bridge:
    Artist: Freeform
    CD: Outside In (Skam)


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