City Council to set aside $186k for first-time homebuyers

Geraldina Gonzalez found out about her current home in Charlottesville through a lucky accident. When Gonzalez was about to close the deal on one house, her Realtor sent her a group email meant for other clients.

“As soon as I saw the house, it clicked. It was the perfect location, the perfect setup for us,” Gonzalez said. “It’s just me and my daughter. There was a little yard. It’s close to her school.”

Gonzalez could afford the house with help from a city grant administered by the Piedmont Housing Alliance. City Council recently held the first of two readings to allocate $186,000 of this year’s Affordable Housing Fund to continue the program.

“People are renting and paying somebody else’s mortgage. This is a chance that they can have the benefits of being a homeowner at a price that they can afford,” said Shelley Murphy, director of program services for PHA.

Since the program began in 2015, it has focused on helping low-income families buy homes in the Orangedale-Prospect neighborhood.

“Charlottesville is a high-cost area, and the Orangedale-Prospect neighborhood has some affordable housing,” Murphy said. “It’s an ideal location, too — downtown, with access to public transportation, as well as being close to the hospital.”

Gonzalez works as a waitress and a host at two restaurants downtown. She moved from El Salvador 16 years ago and is now a U.S. citizen.

“As an immigrant, owning a home matters a lot,” she said. “It matters for my daughter, to show her that anything is possible. Anything she can dream of, she can achieve.”

The other four participants in the pilot program work either in the food industry, apartment maintenance, or as a nursing assistant. All of the participating families make between 36 percent and 66 percent of the area median income.

PHA provides down payments and closing costs in the form of zero-interest, forgivable loans, which participants pay back when they resell their homes. They also receive homeownership counseling and repairs through the Albemarle Housing Improvement Program.

“I think it’s important to note that the families that are being helped are under 66 percent of the area median income,” said Councilor Kathy Galvin. “So this is homeownership for very low-income people, which is a very good thing.”

A 2017 study by Florida Atlantic University, Florida International University and the University of Wyoming found that renting and reinvesting builds wealth more effectively than owning a home. The researchers still recommended homeownership for many as an important way to save and increase wealth.

Gonzalez heard about PHA from her mortgage company in November. The house became officially hers in early January, with the down payment assistance from PHA. AHIP, a home repair nonprofit, also is using city funds to upgrade the energy-efficiency and safety of the house.

“They’re helping us with the windows, the insulation, the doors — big repairs that on my own as a single mother would have been a tremendous expense,” Gonzalez said.

City staff recommended spending $186,125 on the program. This includes funding for down payments, closing costs, home repair grants and program administration. This will leave $43, in the Affordable Housing Fund for the rest of the fiscal year.

The fund will be replenished with another $3.4 million when fiscal year 2019 begins July 1.

Councilor Mike Signer lauded the program as one of the council’s recent achievements.

“One of the things I’ve heard from the activist community is, ‘You guys have to do a better job of getting out the word of what’s happening.’ So I hope that we do a good job of getting out the word about what’s happening with this program and this commitment,” he said.

Gonzalez would like more of that outreach to be in Spanish.

“I know a lot of the Spanish-speaking community has never heard of the program,” she said. “Sometimes I think when you deal with the government, people get scared, but they made it so effortless.”

Councilor Wes Bellamy made a motion to approve the allocation and Councilor Heather Hill seconded the motion. The second reading of the resolution will occur at a later date.

Meanwhile, Gonzalez is looking forward to the day all of the repairs to her home are completed.

 “My daughter can’t wait to decorate,” she said. “We have zero plans of moving. It’s long-term. It feels like home.”