Sweet home: When owning isn't all about money

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National Public Radio
By: Annie Baxter
March 18, 2012

Sweet home: When owning isn't all about money

RACHEL MARTIN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. At the height of the U.S. housing crisis, low-income Americans had a lot of opportunities to buy a home with the help of subprime mortgages. But those mortgages proved to be disastrous, and many people who got them ended up in foreclosure. We asked NPR's Annie Baxter to look into whether people of modest means are still finding paths to homeownership, and whether that's a still a good thing.

ANNIE BAXTER: It's not hard to figure out why the Rhodes family would want a house of their own. Their son Paul makes it clear right away.

ANNIE BAXTER: His mom, Tamika, says in their last place, a two-bedroom apartment, Paul couldn't play the drums because it would have driven the neighbors crazy. Now, Paul, his two sisters and mom and dad live in a big, five-bedroom house in St. Paul, Minnesota. Tamika says they all feel a lot more comfortable.

TAMIKA RHODES: Our main goal of owning a home is a place that we can really call our own, a place that we feel safe and secure. Just a place where we could be free.

ANNIE BAXTER: Tamika and her husband's path into this home is kind of amazing, considering the foreclosure in their recent past. A few years ago, they bought a home with a subprime mortgage that had ballooning payments. Tamika wasn't working year-round and had a low-wage job. The two of them were only pulling in about 30 grand altogether. The house became unaffordable, they lost it to foreclosure, and their credit scores plummeted. A local bank and a nonprofit helped them do some intensive credit repair. And now the Rhodeses are together pulling in about $50,000. With three young kids, that still qualifies them as low-income by federal housing standards for the area. But they were able to close on this house in December for about $146,000. Their monthly payment is less than a grand, which makes Tamika kind of giddy.

TAMIKA RHODES: So, that's the blessing in it, yeah. We're actually paying less now than we were even in the apartment.

ANNIE BAXTER: It might seem surprising that at a time when mortgages can be difficult to get, a bank would take a chance on the Rhodes family and get them back into a home.

VICKIE REARDON: Oh, yes. Definitely willing to work with them.

ANNIE BAXTER: Their loan officer, Vickie Reardon of Bremer Bank, says she works with lower-income borrowers all the time.

VICKIE REARDON: There's been many files I've started and worked with them for over two-plus years before they've actually closed and purchased.

ANNIE BAXTER: Nationally, the share of mortgages made to modest earners doesn't seem to have dropped off. In fact, it hit its high point of the decade in 2009 at 34 percent. Reardon says these days a lot of Bremer's loans to low-income people are made through the Federal Housing Administration or FHA. It requires smaller down payments than traditional loans do. But she doesn't think that's driving people of modest means to buy houses.

VICKIE REARDON: Because of interest rates and lowering home prices is really what's helping them get into those properties because I don't think, you know, FHA or any of the other programs really have lowered their standards at all.

ANNIE BAXTER: Of course, there's a downside to the drop-off in home prices that Reardon mentioned. The housing market in the Twin Cities is down about 35 percent from its peak a few years ago. Houses aren't quite the smart financial investment people once thought they were. And housing expert Alan Mallach says the financial benefits of home ownership can be even lower for people who don't make much money. Mallach published a study in 2011 for the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia on lower-income home ownership.

ALAN MALLACH: It's a double whammy. Your basic housing costs to begin with are going to be a much larger chunk of income, which means you've got less slack. Plus, the likelihood that your house is going to need repairs is much greater than if you buy a more expensive house.

ANNIE BAXTER: Still, Mallach says, if people of modest means hold onto their houses and don't go into foreclosure - for which they are at much higher risk - they can reap some big benefits. For one thing, their children do a lot better than renters because they're not moving around as much.

TAMIKA RHODES: Taneea, what did you just tell her?

ANNIE BAXTER: As her kids chat in the kitchen, Tamika Rhodes says the stability of home ownership is definitely something she's been relishing since her family moved out of their tiny apartment.

TAMIKA RHODES: My kids before, during the tough times, I noticed how they were more withdrawn, and they argued so much more with each other. But being stabilized has really brought all of us together more as a family.

ANNIE BAXTER: And that stability is more important to her than whether a home is a profitable investment. Annie Baxter, NPR News, St. Paul.

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