BY VICTORIA HECHT / VIRGINIAN-PILOT
January 28, 2014
The first time a colleague shared information with Lavern Wilson about the HOME Investment Partnership Program, she handed the application to a coworker.
“I didn’t have enough faith at the time,” she said.
But the bus driver and mother of three held tight when a second application came her way. There had to be a reason for it, she figured, and decided to learn more.
She discovered that the program aims to increase the amount of affordable and decent housing for would-be homeowners in Norfolk with low to moderate incomes. The program is offered through the City of Norfolk and the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority.
Through the program, eligible first-time buyers receive assistance on down payments and closing costs through forgivable “soft-second” mortgage loans that feature no interest or monthly payments.
“I live in the projects – been there 19 years – and didn’t know I could buy a home,” said Wilson, of Lexington Park Apartments off Tidewater Drive. “God was looking out for me.”
Now, Wilson is returning, as a first-time homeowner, to Ballentine, the neighborhood where she grew up. And while she is moving back to old stomping grounds, the 1,191-square-foot, two-story house that’ll be hers is brand new.
It’s also the first of its kind for the HOME program.
The Ballentine Boulevard house that Wilson will inhabit is the program’s inaugural new-construction dwelling built for $126,000.
LaShawn Fortes, manager of the city’s HomeNet Homeownership Center, an NRHA component that started in 1997, said that a second house that fits the low-budget category is under way on Grandy Avenue, and a third is planned in Berkley.
Some clients were stagnating in the HOME program not because of their credit or a lack of savings, said Jennifer White, NRHA’s senior communications and marketing specialist, but because they were “unable to find a home in decent condition under $130,000.”
Fortes said the price tag for most homes in the program, either refurbished ones or newly built houses, was $175,000 or more.
“Something under $130,000 was not proving easy for lookers,” he said, usually because the housing inventory in that range needs too much work and might not be up to code.
Besides, Fortes added, “For the (program) homeowners to be successful, they shouldn’t have to make any major repairs.”
But building a house, lot included, on such a moderate budget? It hadn’t happened.
NRHA wanted to change that.
Seven months ago, HomeNet reached out to some builders with whom it had previously worked and asked: Could they build a house – lot included – for $126,000?
Bobby Howerin of Howerin Construction Corp., a member of NRHA’s Builders and Designers Guild, was the first to accept the challenge and recently completed Wilson’s house on infill, a vacant area between homes in an established neighborhood. (According to the housing authority’s website, guild membership is a requisite for participating in single-family-home construction projects in which the authority is the land developer.)
“This was kind of an experiment to see how reasonably or low-priced or affordable a home can be,” Howerin said.
Wilson’s house, a Queen Anne style that’s just 21.4 feet wide, is built on a so-called “nonconforming-sized lot” – 371?2 feet by 100 feet as opposed to the city’s minimum size of 50 feet by 100 feet. The home is proportional to the lot’s smaller dimensions.
Howerin worked with TightLines Designs, an architectural firm based in Raleigh, N.C., that provides designs for environmentally friendly and affordable homes. The firm has done at least 11 builds with NRHA in recent years, and TightLines project manager Craig Bethel said the company typically does Victorians or bungalows to blend in with a neighborhood’s existing homes.
Wilson selected TightLine’s “Monique” model, a Queen Anne style with three bedrooms and 2-1/2 baths and an open floor plan downstairs, which offers larger living in a smaller footprint.
“The floor plan itself is smaller, but it doesn’t feel confined,” Bethel said. “We try not to block views in public spaces and to make as much use of these spaces as possible. And the good thing about our houses is they have the old look and charm but with today’s efficiency.”
Howerin said the heating- and air-efficiency rating on Wilson’s home is a grade higher than is standard for the industry. The structure also features plenty of recycled wood products, Energy Star-approved appliances and energy-efficient windows and doors.
Wilson was able to pick the colors for her siding, roofing, paint, flooring and counter tops.
“I’ve never had a bathroom of my own,” Wilson said, “and I love how the house has a country-style porch that I can sit on.”
Although Howerin is a custom home builder whose works have been showcased in several Homearamas, the relevance of this being Wilson’s first home isn’t lost on him.
“The people who’ve qualified for the program have worked hard to get there,” he said.
Wilson fits that category. She said that she was “speechless” when Fortes, the HomeNet Homeownership Center manager, told her that she could have a new home in her price range.
To qualify for the program, Wilson said she had to take homeownership classes and learn about real estate taxes, home maintenance, budgeting and how to trim expenses, among other topics.
“They taught me what I can do without because there will be a lot more than I’ll be responsible for,” she said.
Fortes said the average household seeking a home through the program spends two years preparing financially, including eliminating debt and increasing credit score.
“We look at what they need to do and then put steps together for them three at a time,” she said. “They get through those steps, and then we give them three more.
“We take a holistic approach from beginning to end to make sure their credit is right, that they have savings and that they understand the responsibilities of homeownership.”
According to Fortes, in 2013 the average income of a program participant was $37,000; the average home sale price was $151,000, with an average loan of $129,400. The average household size was two people. The program’s total sales in 2013 was $5,600,953. Of that, total private funding leveraged was $3,496,009.
Fortes said HomeNet has assisted low- to moderate-income families in purchasing more than $90 million in real estate in Norfolk since the program’s inception.
In 2013, 36 households completed the road to homeownership through the program. Demographically, they were represented by nine white, one Hispanic, one Asian and 25 black households. Professions of recent buyers include, but are not limited to, teacher, bartender, garbage-truck driver, auto tech, security guard, painter, administrative specialist, postal carrier, personal trainer, pharmacy technician and mechanic. Retired military also purchased.
The program’s participants range in age from the 20s through the senior years. The oldest client, Fortes said, was a 72-year-old woman who had always wanted her own home and ended up paying less to own than she had renting.
“She wanted to have her own place before leaving the Earth, and she did,” Fortes said.
Wilson’s home is possible, in part, through Department of Housing and Urban Development funds allocated to the city annually and administered through NRHA.
In turn, NRHA, according to the HOME program’s website, has partnerships with the Virginia Housing Development Authority as well as HUD-certified housing agencies, private lenders and real-estate professionals.
Wilson first mortgage – a traditional 30-year one – is through Monarch Bank. A “silent-second” 10-year mortgage through the HOME program provides a no-interest loan that is partially forgiven on each annual anniversary-of-closing date; Wilson must stay in the house for 10 years for it to be fully forgiven.
She predicts that will be no problem.
“I am elated; my children are so happy,” she said. “I don’t plan on going anywhere. Once I move in, that’s it. That’s my dream home.”
Victoria Hecht, firstname.lastname@example.org
QUALIFYING FOR THE HOME PROGRAM
To qualify for the HOME Investment Partnership Program, one must:
-Be a first-time home buyer or not have owned a home within the past three years.
-Have a gross annual household income within 80 percent of the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s median income limit for the area. For example, effective Feb. 9, 2013, in Norfolk, that would be $58,650 for four people
-Be pre-approved for a first mortgage loan by a Virginia Housing Development Authority-approved lender with a pre-approved loan that specifies, among other things, a pre-approved loan amount, a fixed interest rate, type of standard fixed-rate loan and a loan term of 30 years. Also, the HomeNet Homeownership Center must certify that the credit of the first mortgage borrower meets HOME program guidelines including, among others, no unsatisfied collections or judgments.
-Must have verifiable savings of at least $3,000.
-Must have a certificate of completion from a Virginia Housing Development Authority homeownership educational program class.
*Households that are interested in down-payment and closing-cost assistance from the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority must be determined eligible through NRHA’s HOME program before ratifying a contract. Those with a ratified contract before eligibility is determined will be automatically ineligible for assistance.
Source: Norfolk Development and Housing Authority
For more information:
Go to www.nrha.us/own/HOMEprogram
Call HOME Program manager Rebecca Burns at 757-314-2108 or program eligibility specialist Cora Lott at 757-314-2088; the HomeNet Homeownership Center at 757-314-4202 or the Norfolk Redevelopment and Housing Authority at 757-623-1111.
Visit the HOME Program office from 6:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday. The office is closed Friday.