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Immigrant assistance center opens doors on Main Street

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The Asian Americans for Equality celebrated the opening of its new center in Flushing Friday as a way to publicize its services to immigrants interested in buying homes, becoming citizens and starting or sustaining small businesses in Queens.

"When we first started, we called it a fair housing center," AAFE Executive Director Christopher Kui said of the organization's first Queens hub in a small office on Main Street. "Part of it was to learn about the community and develop relationships with the civic organizations. We found that Queens residents, their needs are very different."

Kui's organization moved to a new building on the corner of 39th Avenue and College Point Boulevard and commemorated the group's growth at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday. Its roots originated in a Chinatown facility where Kui said the organization realized how many immigrants were interested in buying houses and moving to Queens.

"The aspirations of residents that move to Queens is, yes, they do want quality housing, but they're looking to set roots permanently," he said. In the past 10 years the group has helped 2,000 families buy homes, which accounted for more than $200 million in mortgages secured.

Flora Ferng, who now works for AAFE, is one of the thousands of immigrants who benefited from the group's mission. She was 26 years old when she graduated from college and decided with her husband to purchase a home.

"Right away I started to shop around, and my real estate broker introduced me to my mortgage broker," she said. She knew that business practice was potentially corrupt and could lead to higher interest rates on her mortgage because of what she learned in a course through AAFE.

"AAFE helped refer me to other vendors," she said. "Even though my husband and I speak English, read and write English, people still try to take advantage."

She and her husband are both Taiwanese. Today they own a one-family home in Flushing and are expecting a child.

"It's the education. It's so important to immigrants," she said.

Kui said one of the largest obstacles to introducing Asian home buyers to the American system is explaining the mortgage system. Because mortgage is inherently debt, it runs counter to some Korean and Chinese cultural beliefs about owing money rather than owning homes outright.

"Very often they don't understand this country, how the credit system works," Kui said. "In Asian culture, for a long time it was not good to collect debt, whereas in our country it's a leveraging factor - it can help you do more."

Typically in Asian countries, home buyers come up with about 40 percent to 50 percent of the cost of a house for a down payment, whereas in America, buyers are required to produce about 20 percent of the cost of their home, he said.

Local elected officials who attended the ribbon-cutting Friday said they were happy to have an organization like AAFE growing in the community.

"I remember when you opened your office on Main Street," state Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky (D-Whitestone) said. "This sort of symbolizes what happens here in Queens. We are expanding not only the building but the mission."

State Assemblyman Barry Grodenchik (D-Flushing), expressed a similar sentiment.

"You've met people who have gotten homes, saved their businesses and, most importantly, become American citizens," he said. "You're changing people's lives here."

Reach reporter Cynthia Koons by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 141.

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