Language barriers in North Carolina leave Latino families vulnerable

Local and state agencies are lagging at providing access to a growing ‘limited English’ population
As the Hispanic/Latino population rapidly grows across North Carolina, a WBTV Investigation reveals language barriers for limited English speakers
Updated: Jan. 23, 2023 at 6:20 PM EST
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - As the Hispanic/Latino population rapidly grows across North Carolina, a WBTV Investigation reveals language barriers for limited English speakers continue to persist in local and state government.

Las barreras lingüísticas en Carolina del Norte dejan vulnerables a las familias latinas

Real estate agent Anabell Rodriguez tells WBTV non-English speaking families often must rely on a child to translate government websites and documents that are in English. She said it’s not unusual for families to hire someone to help navigate a process where a Spanish translation isn’t available.

“If you don’t know the language, or you can’t read the language, then you’re going to have to hire somebody to help you out,” Rodriguez said.

US Census data shows the Hispanic/Latino non-English speaking population has progressively grown in Mecklenburg County.

“Or you’re just going to give up.”

US Census data shows the Hispanic/Latino non-English speaking population has progressively grown in Mecklenburg County. In 2010, the number of Latinos who spoke English “not well” or “not at all” was roughly 30,000. In 2020, the number was closer to 43,000.

Rodriguez says those families are vulnerable to prejudice and people trying to take advantage of them.

“Our biggest downfall is not having the correct information,” Rodriguez said.

Charlotte’s Language Access Policy

The City of Charlotte adopted a “Language Access Policy” in November 2020 to help limited English speakers navigate government resources.

Two years later, basic parts of that plan have still not been completed. Each city department is required to appoint a language liaison and create a language access plan. Those plans have not been created.

Federico Rios leads the city’s Office of Equity, Mobility and Immigrant Integration. WBTV asked him why the language access goals have not been accomplished yet.

“The individual that used to manage our language access process left us,” Rios told WBTV.

“We hired up in the last couple of months and that individual is now taking over the training of language access liaisons, we’re excited to have that moving forward within the next couple of weeks.”

The City of Charlotte website can be translated into dozens of different languages but Rios admitted to WBTV it isn’t a very good translation.

What’s also not translated is government vital records. Documents, permits, land records, birth and death certificates are only accessible to people who have English skills. Those resources are provided by both the city and Mecklenburg County.

Rios said it could take two years to start making progress with the language access plans to translate these records. He also wants to prioritize a Spanish language version of the CLT+ app. The app allows residents to check on trash pickup, pay water bills and file requests with 311.

“A lot of people are looking, hey, is my trash going to be picked up today, I need to schedule a bulk pickup, I want to connect to animal control. Those types of services we want to make sure that we front load into the Spanish language,” Rios said.

WBTV requested an interview with Mecklenburg County about their translation efforts. The county refused to do an interview on-camera and a spokesperson provided a written statement.

“Our departments offer language access options like interpretation and document translation whenever possible,” a spokesperson wrote.

The county also has an Equity Action Plan which contains some information about language accessibility.

Homebuying for Limited English Speakers

Rodriguez says non-English speaking families especially face risks when trying to buy a home for the first time.

“There are instances where we’ve heard, and where I personally know of, unlicensed agents or unlicensed personnel that’s assisting with loan documentation and charging retainer fees. That’s not fair to do that to one category of people and not to everyone,” Rodriguez said.

WBTV found two disciplinary cases from the North Carolina Real Estate Commission where Spanish speaking clients were allegedly taken advantage of by realtors or someone acting like a licensed realtor.

The Real Estate commission doesn’t offer a Spanish language complaint form and requires incoming complaints to be written in English.

A WBTV Investigation into a contractor and realtor marketing to the Latino community uncovered a complaint filed with the NCREC in which a homeowner wrote she was using her daughter-in-law to translate because the homeowner doesn’t speak English.

“Agents in my office have been told ‘hire an attorney to translate.’ It’s unfair,” Rodriguez said.

Miriam Baer is Executive Director of the North Carolina Real Estate Commission. She told WBTV that the commission would evaluate on a case-by-case basis whether a homebuyer filing a complaint would need to hire someone to translate.

“It is more challenging for somebody who’s not English speaking right now,” Baer said.

“We don’t have the resources to take complaints in other languages.”

Baer told WBTV it’s harder to translate documents that have legal terminology. She said the real estate commission has hired a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer and is starting to prioritize what needs are most important.

WBTV asked Rodriguez what would help real estate agents and homebuyers most.

“There needs to be information in writing that I can give to someone,” Rodriguez said.

The real estate commission publishes standard forms to help agents and consumers but only nine out of twenty-six are translated into Spanish. Rodriguez says some of the Spanish translations are not up to date.

Census data shows Latino homeownership has grown by nearly 60 percent between 2010 and 2021. Rodriguez says local and state government agencies need to prioritize language accessibility for non-English speakers so those families aren’t taken advantage of.

“To catch up, it’s an understatement,” Rodriguez said.

To make suggestions about language accessibility to the North Carolina Real Estate Commission email info@ncrec.gov

To make suggestions about language accessibility to the City of Charlotte email Federico.Rios@charlottenc.gov