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Front Page - Friday, July 26, 2019

Reluctant immigrant finds home

Honduran Realtor uses own experience to help others realize dream

Many immigrants have stories of growing up dirt poor in a third-world country and dreaming of someday moving to the United States, the land of opportunity.

But that’s not Ricky Leveron’s story.

Instead, the 26-year-old Honduran native and Chattanooga Realtor paints a picture of a happy, productive youth filled with family, friends and whatever activities he could cram into his prematurely busy schedule, whether it was modeling, dancing or marching band.

“I had a lot of fun as a kid,” Leveron says of growing up in Siguatepeque, a small town located in the central mountains of Honduras.

His family did struggle economically, as he says all people in the Central American country do, but this reality didn’t overshadow the joy that filled his younger years.

“There’s no such thing as living comfortably in Honduras, but I don’t want to say I came from a poor family,” Leveron explains. “I don’t like to talk about those things because they denigrate my country – and I love my country.”

Likewise, Leveron didn’t spend his formative years dreaming of a better life in the U.S. Instead, after graduating from secondary school, he began taking classes at UTH (translated as Technological University of Honduras) and working.

Even after Leveron’s mother moved to the U.S. to remarry, he was reluctant to follow her. “I had a life. I had friends and was romantically involved,” he says. “I didn’t want to leave my brothers and my country.”

Nevertheless, as the 19-year-old Leveron thought about his mother and sister living with a new family in an unfamiliar country, his protective instincts kicked in and he felt pulled northward.

While in the U.S. to obtain the papers that would allow him to easily visit his parent and sibling, Leveron realized he liked the States better than he’d thought he would and decided to stay.

“It made sense to come here, where there were more opportunities,” he says.

Today, Leveron leads a life that’s very different from the one he’d envisioned in Honduras. There, he’d wanted to become a pediatrician, but here he helps people achieve their ambitions of homeownership.

Leveron also helps those who have never dreamed they could own a home. While he says he eagerly works with clients of every “race, color, religion, sex, handicap, familial status, national origin, sexual orientation and gender identity,” as directed by article 10 of the Realtor’s Code of Ethics, his bilingualism and deep-seated desire to help people have brought many immigrants from Central and South America to his door.

“When I first started selling real estate, I realized I was connecting easily with certain people,” he adds. “So, I started researching how to help those communities.”

Leveron learned about a program for immigrants with a tax ID that enabled them to obtain an ITIN (Individual Tax Identification Number) Mortgage Loan. He also connected with Chattanooga Neighborhood Enterprise, a nonprofit housing organization, with an out-of-state investor that offers ITIN loans and established strong relationships with a handful of mortgage companies, including Caliber Home Loans, Movement Mortgage and Community Lenders Group.

Through this process of discovery and taking action, Leveron learned many U.S. immigrants rent a home simply because they’re unaware they could buy one. He gladly informs them otherwise and then enlists to help.

“I take them from the beginning to the end,” he says. “I’m very involved in the process so I can control how the deal goes.”

Leveron’s ability to cross the language barrier between English and Spanish is a boon for his clients. Like all good Realtors, he can explain complex terms and processes to his customers in a way they understand – and do so in a language they speak.

“There aren’t many professionals in Chattanooga who speak Spanish, and when it comes to finding a loan officer, inspector or appraiser, people who don’t speak English will have a hard time understanding what they’re saying,” he says.

Leveron’s work has allowed him to share many heartwarming moments with others. The story that sprouts the biggest smile on his face, however, is the one about a family from Mexico that bought a house through him after renting for 18 years.

“Everyone in the family put something toward the down payment,” he recalls. “The youngest girl contributed the money that was in her piggy bank, the older daughter, who was 16, had just started working her first job, and their son, who was 19, also put his savings toward the house.

“That was the most moving thing I’d seen in real estate.”

Leveron says he enjoys bringing value to the everyday lives of others and is glad he’s in a position to do so. But there was a time soon after he moved to the U.S. when his vision of his future was clouded by the challenges many immigrants face.

Leveron was clinging to his hopes of becoming a children’s doctor when he moved to the U.S. However, the logistics of applying to a college as a foreigner combined with his initially poor English stopped him in his tracks.

“My first year in the United States was depressing because I didn’t know how to communicate,” he remembers. “Eventually, my English improved and I dove into the culture here and met many different kinds of people.”

Two factors gave rise to Leveron’s foray into real estate. First, he landed an administrative job at a leasing office in Chattanooga. Although only loosely tied to the work he does now, it sparked his interest in the field. Then he picked up a copy of author T. Harv Eker’s book, “Secrets of the Millionaire Mind.”

“He says if you want your income to have no limit, then you need to be in sales, and he uses real estate as an example,” Leveron explains. “I was already working in real estate, so I decided to learn more.”

Leveron earned his real estate license in 2016 while working two jobs. Looking back, he can’t explain how he was able to do this. “That was one of my biggest accomplishments,” he says. “Earning my license was challenging but it would have been easier if I hadn’t been working so much.”

Once Leveron had his license in hand, he made a beeline for Keller Williams Greater Downtown Realty. Friends had introduced him to the company, which is the largest real estate brokerage in the Chattanooga area. “I didn’t interview anywhere else,” he says. “I wanted to be a part of something big.”

He spent a year taking classes at KW before he dove into sales. Even though his English had greatly improved by that time, the world of real estate had introduced him to an entirely new vocabulary. “I wanted to be able to provide good service before I started selling houses,” he points out.

Leveron says he also became part of a new family. KW Realtor Marie Williams coached him on the basics of real estate and fine-tuned his mindset, while CEO Nathan Brown, managing broker Steve Champion, Realtor Steve LaMar and others made themselves available whenever he had questions.

Now, as Leveron strolls the sprawling interior of KW Downtown’s new Washington Street complex, the staff and his fellow agents offer smiles and greetings – and even knock on a window and wave after he’s settled into a seat in a conference room. In a word, Leveron feels embraced.

This seems deeply meaningful to him, not just because of his Hispanic heritage and immigrant status but because he’s also part of the LGBTQ community.

“That’s a hard subject to talk about in this business because not everyone is OK with it, but it’s who I am, and I want to work with the people who want to work with me,” he says.

Leveron says he’s not experienced any prejudice since becoming a Realtor, but if he does, he won’t view it as an obstacle.

“I know there are people who don’t have the same mindset as I do, so I’ll put that aside and help them achieve their dream of homeownership,” he says. “What matters to me is changing lives.”

Besides, he says, if someone chooses to work with another Realtor for any reason, so be it. “There’s enough cake for everybody.”

One exceptionally delicious slice of cake Leveron is savoring is his boost in local celebrity after being selected to receive a 2019 Latino Leadership Award from La Paz Chattanooga, a nonprofit focused on empowering the Latinx community.

The Latino Leadership Awards is an annual awards ceremony highlighting local individuals of Latino and Hispanic descent who have positively impacted their communities. These individuals are peer-nominated and then selected by a committee of past honorees for their dedication to the Latinx community and Chattanooga at large.

This year’s awards ceremony will take place Monday, Sept. 16, at the Chattanooga Convention Center.

Nearly a dozen members of the greater Chattanooga community nominated Leveron for the award, including the daughter of a pastor who’s referred several Hispanic and Latino homebuyers to him. Leveron has also helped a number of Spanish-speaking parents register their children for elementary school, offering another indication as to why he’s being honored.

Lily Sanchez, communications coordinator for La Paz Chattanooga, says Leveron comes well-recommended.

“A lot of community members want to see Ricky honored this year,” Sanchez says. “People say he has a welcoming personality, he’s good at giving undivided attention and he’s generous with his time and resources.”

Leveron never envisioned moving to the U.S. and starting a business, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have dreams of his own. He plans to return to school in the near future to earn a marketing degree, and he hopes to someday have dual citizenship in the U.S. and Honduras. He’s a legal immigrant and is studying for the U.S. citizenship test.

Also, while Leveron intends to stay in the U.S. and grow his real estate business, he also has big plans for the home of his youth: opening a Maldives-style hotel or resort on the waters of Roatán, a Caribbean island located off the northern coast of Honduras.

“Honduras needs people to invest in it,” he says. “And encouraging more people to visit my country will help its economy.”

Leveron says starting a business in Honduras will be easier than launching one in the States because of the value of a dollar in the Central American country. “The money you make here is worth more there,” he explains.

Even so, this ambition presents a formidable challenge – one Leveron says he’s up to tackling. “If you have the right mindset, you can start at the bottom and work your way to the top,” he explains. “Real estate is exactly what I need to accomplish these dreams.”

Leveron also plans to bring his family members who remain in Honduras, including three brothers and the grandmother who helped to raise him, to the U.S.

A barely visible thread of selflessness runs through Leveron’s life. Evident on the fringes of his comments is the notion that he places his family’s needs above his own, and perhaps his revelation that he wanted to be a pediatrician suggests that, in his mind, his relatives must come first.

But when asked about this impression, he quietly says, “That’s just the way I am.”