CHICAGO – Civil rights leaders and fair housing advocates during a “Putting Our Communities on the Map: The Economic Road to Recovery,” town hall meeting at the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) conference here said Latino and African American communities continue to be the hardest-hit by the looming economic crisis.

Home foreclosures, rising unemployment, the credit crunch and the lack of affordable health care are wreaking havoc in predominantly working class communities as the U.S. continues to struggle through the worst recession since the Great Depression, they said.

On a distinguished panel, speakers discussed initiatives led by President Barack Obama’s administration and Congress and their efforts in addressing these devastating problems.

Are low-income communities, Latinos and Blacks getting a fair share of relief and opportunity during these tough times of economic recovery, they asked. What are real solutions in dealing with the greatest economic challenges of our time?

Studies show that 400,000 homes are expected to be lost in 2009 due to the housing crisis.

Shaun Donovan, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development was the events featured speaker.

Donovan began saying the U.S. Latino community historically has made a significant impact in all areas of American society making up 15 percent of the entire U.S. population. Latinos, he said, continue to make a positive impact economically, socially and politically throughout the country.

At the same time Latinos undergo many unfortunate disparities, said Donovan.

For example every year a third of the Latino population goes without health care, he said.

Donavan added Latinos, and other low-income communities, suffer the most with the disastrous housing crisis.

“The foreclosure issue is at the root of our economic crisis,” said Donovan.

“Having a home is the basic foundation of building a family and it’s the engine of economic growth in every community,” said Donovan. But that simple truth continues to be eroded by the on-going housing crisis, he said.

Donovan added that the Obama administration is committed to stabilizing the economic crisis and signs of progress are slowly on the horizon. Tens of thousands are finally benefiting from reform loan modifications but the pressure to provide resources and accessibility to make homes affordable must persist, said Donovan.

Housing counselors must be ready to answer questions in order to help assist families in danger of losing their homes, he added. Local housing rights groups, especially those with bilingual speakers need to reach out to homeowners and break down the language barrier, he said.

The Latino community was one of the hardest hit with risky sub-prime loans devastating neighborhoods and it’s no coincidence that poor communities were targeted, said Donovan. It’s a tragedy, he said.

“I am absolutely committed to help as many families stay in their homes. This is our greatest test and I have every intention of passing it,” said Donovan.

Donovan also commented on the rising issue of hate and biased crimes committed against people of color. This is unacceptable, he said.

“It’s time to tell those who discriminate, it’s enough!” said Donovan. “And you can’t get away with it anymore. You will be held accountable for your actions.”

Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League said for the last eight years a sign on the fair housing door in Washington read, “closed.” Morial said Blacks and Latinos must work together on this catastrophic issue including fighting together for more jobs in both communities. “In great crises we are called to do extraordinary things and we must fight to put people back to work,” said Morial.

NCLR President Janet Murguia said strengthening partnerships in communities of color and learning from one another is the way to go. Blacks and Latinos make up more than 25 percent of the U.S. population and we need to stand together, she said. “Our families are hurting when it comes to the lack of jobs and health care,” she added. “We all want the same thing – a secure job, a safe mortgage and decent health care,” said Murguia.

Henry Cisneros, president and CEO of CityView, Inc. said, “The system of housing does not work unless it’s fair.” Home foreclosures destroy neighborhoods and minimizes a community’s confidence, he said.

Executive Director with the Opportunity Agenda, Alan Jenkins noted the Obama administration, after eight years of neglect under the previous administration, was left with “building a plane while actually flying the plane,” when it comes the economic crisis.

The panelist said millions underwent foreclosure during years of inaction under the George W. Bush administration.

Blaming the victim for losing their home is not supported by facts, they charged. This is not about weather people can be homeowners, it’s about doing it right and getting back to the basics when it comes to fair and equal lending practices, they said.

Recent finding point to the fact that foreclosures today are becoming more of a problem due to the rising number of unemployed, said the panelists.

Urban planning and fair housing initiatives should begin to keep in mind suburban, small towns and “so-called” rural areas that are becoming distinctly urban, some said. Smaller communities with fast growing populations in places not commonly known as urban including farmworker districts where many live in extreme poverty should also be noted when it comes to fair housing, they charge.

The biggest challenge will be “immigration-integration” and developing fair practices, equal opportunities, and bilingual programs for the rights of immigrant homeowners, some argued.

In the audience was Emeline Ortiz, 26, a Chicago college student who works as a housing counselor assistant for a northside group called the Latin United Community Housing Association, otherwise, known as LUCHA.

Ortiz said she helps about 40 people a month in her area and that she understands the difficulties when it comes to serving the Latino community on housing rights, especially with the language barrier.

The lack of Spanish material and protections for immigrant homeowners is a real problem, she said. “There needs to be more outreach on this,” said Ortiz.

“Families are losing their homes and this conference has helped me to better understand what’s really going on,” said Ortiz.

The NCLR four-day conference has been very informative for Ortiz and has given her incentive to stay active in her community, she said. Advocating for health care reform, educational opportunities and equal rights for the Latino community is important, she said.

“I have learned a lot and I am proud to hear and see what the Latino community is doing,” she said.