Francis: Homeownership dream possible through program

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Owning my own home was one of the most important dreams that I had as an American; but as a Navajo, it was not a dream easily realized. In fact, when I purchased my first home five years ago, I was one of only three homeowners in my entire extended family.

Many Americans can relate. With the cost of housing skyrocketing in the Phoenix area, affording your own home can be a frightening proposition. For Navajos, the proposition can be even scarier.

I was an American Indian with an accounting degree and 12 years of financial management experience, and the thought of purchasing my first home was incredibly intimidating. I grew up in public housing on the Navajo reservation and I didn't know the first thing about buying a house. After all, owning real estate is a foreign concept to almost anyone raised on a reservation.

Natives have historically faced a number of barriers to home ownership, including low incomes, high debt, high housing costs and lack of homeownership education. However, there are many organizations working to help improve opportunities for homeownership and I'm proud to be working with one of them.

Neighborhood Housing Services of Phoenix, where I am the financial manager, in partnership with NeighborWorks (R) America and the Navajo Housing Authority, is providing qualified Navajo families with down payment assistance to help them realize the dream of owning their own home. Navajo families with low debt and stable income sources are encouraged to apply.

This partnership is based on a grant - which expires in June of next year - that provides qualifying families with up to $10,000 that they can apply toward the purchase of a home in either Maricopa or Coconino counties. This unique and much-needed program helps Navajo families who are struggling with the high cost associated with buying a home to begin to build equity. This is often the first critical step to improving their family's financial future.

As I can tell you from personal experience, homeownership is the most powerful wealth driver for most people. When I bought my house in South Phoenix, I purchased my lot for about $5,000. Today, lots in my neighborhood are selling for $70,000. There is no question that my home is my nest egg. I will be using the equity in my home to take out a loan to send my son to college.

The program being offered at NHS Phoenix has already helped five Maricopa families buy their first homes. One new homeowner, Michelle, was handed the keys to her new home last December. ''I should have done it sooner,'' she told me. ''I wasted six years paying rent when I could have been building equity. I know that now.''

When Michelle first started thinking about buying, she talked to a housing counselor at NHS Phoenix to get advice on improving her credit. It took her a few years to get that situation in order and then she attended homebuyer education classes at NHS Phoenix, learning all about the home buying process.

''I was very intimidated by the whole process at first,'' Michelle told our counselors, ''but the NHS Phoenix staff reassured me. They made me feel comfortable. They answered all my questions, and I had a lot of them.''

Of course, securing her down payment and closing costs was another obstacle. So, the key to fulfilling her dream was to receive a grant provided by NHS Phoenix, in partnership with NeighborWorks (R) America and the Navajo Housing Authority. As an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation buying a house off the reservation, Michelle received a $10,000 grant to help with down payment and closing costs. The down payment assistance helped to lower the amount of her NHS Phoenix mortgage loan, making her house payments manageable.

''I'm so happy to have my own home, to have a place for my children,'' Michelle said.

I agree with Michelle - homeownership provides many wonderful opportunities for Navajo families, but the steps to get to that point can be tricky. During my home buying process, I faced a predatory lender and an unscrupulous sales agent. One lender encouraged me to lie on my income on the loan application and a sales agent tried a ''bait and switch'' deal on me by first offering me a financing package that was acceptable to me and then, later, increasing my interest rate.

Fortunately, I didn't fall for either of those tricks.

As we tell our new homebuyers in the NHS Phoenix homebuyer education classes, all families must be realistic about what they can afford. That's why it's extremely important to get educated about buying a home before you actually meet with anyone who wants to sell you a house. This type of education is a must for all first-time homebuyers.

There is good news. We have money to help even more families. We are actively seeking Navajos who earn less than 80 percent of the Maricopa County median income (which is about $60,000 for a family of four) for this program. They could qualify for up to $10,000 toward a down payment on a home.

To qualify, a potential homeowner must be an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation and must have a good credit history. It's true that lenders today are looking more closely at credit history and levels of debt, such as car loans or credit card balances, than ever before. That's a good thing because it will help prevent homeowners from losing their homes to foreclosure. Today's mortgage companies will likely insist that the potential homeowner eliminate some old debt before borrowing more.

But for families who qualify, the rewards are tremendous. Our goal is to make homeownership in Arizona a reality, not a mere dream.

Todd Francis, Navajo, is the financial manager for NHS Phoenix, a member of the national NeighborWorks network. For more information about the NeighborWorks HomeOwnership Center, contact NHS Phoenix at (602) 258-1659.