The San Francisco Chronicle
By: Carolyn Said
May 14, 2013
Wakeelah and Andre Davis "always wanted to own a home and had been saving up," said Wakeelah, an AC Transit bus driver. Like many first-time home buyers, especially those of modest means, they were consistently outbid by investors who could pay all cash.
"I kind of gave up for a while," Wakeelah Davis said. Then she came across a Richmond two-bedroom. The online listing said it would only be sold to people who wanted to live in it. The listing asked, "Tired of being beat out by cash offers?"
"That sparked my interest to come back and try," she said. "I thought maybe I'll have a chance."
The ad had another unusual requirement: It asked prospective buyers to write a letter about themselves, their house-hunting quest and their ties to the community.
"I told them I was born and raised in Richmond and I love the area. I graduated from Kennedy High and that's where my son wants to attend," said Wakeelah, whose son Dre'onn, 13, is now in middle school.
Even though theirs wasn't the highest offer, the Davis family was selected to buy the house.
The seller was a nonprofit with a mission to buy, renovate and resell foreclosed houses only to owner-occupants under the unwieldy name "Foreclosure Recovery and Asset Building Management Project."
"We want to help low- to moderate-income families get into homeownership so they can increase their self-sufficiency," said Nicole Taylor, CEO of the East Bay Community Foundation in Oakland, which provided seed money for the program as a project of Self-Help Community Development Corp. "The idea was that maybe we could help families turn around their lives by providing them with an opportunity to buy this key asset that can grow in value."
The mission also includes boosting local communities.
"We seek families who have roots in the community so they can maintain their family ties and help neighborhoods by having more stable families," said Paul Staley, vice president of Self-Help Community Development Corp.
In operation since 2010, the program has handled just 18 homes, mainly in Contra Costa County, although it's branching into Oakland. Taylor sees it as a pilot program and hopes to find funds to expand.A variety of similar programs exist that buy, fix and resell foreclosures to homeowners. Some use funds from the federal Neighborhood Stabilization Program, which was set up to help communities hard-hit by foreclosures and blight but is winding down.
But all such programs "are just a drop in the bucket," said Maria Benjamin, executive director of Community Housing Development Corp. of North Richmond, which provides financial education to prospective home buyers, including those in the Self-Help program. "They are few and far between; there just isn't enough money."
Besides the resold-foreclosures programs, there are a variety of resources for low- and moderate-income people seeking to buy homes (see box). Though not enough to meet demand, it behooves prospective home buyers to learn about them, experts said.
Some advocates say the government should be doing much more to encourage and support lower-income homeowners.
Sasha Weblin, economic equity director at Berkeley's nonprofit Greenlining Institute, which tries to extend opportunities to people regardless of race or income, listed several policy areas where she hopes legislators and regulators will take action.
They include pushing banks to create "sustainable mortgage products that work for middle- and low-income borrowers," she said, adding that it's critically important that borrowers demonstrate income to pay back loans, to avoid a repeat of the subprime lending disaster. Another step would be a bank-backed pool of funds for down-payment assistance, she said. She'd also like to see lenders pay closer attention to borrowers' payment history, giving credit for a history of on-time rent and utilities payments - something that current credit scoring systems don't take into account.
"We'd like the administration to take a more comprehensive and proactive stance about homeownership for everyone," she said.
Wish list for help
Sheri Powers, director of the homeownership center at Oakland's Unity Council, works directly with prospective home buyers. Her wish list for government help includes a way to urge banks selling foreclosures to sell to owner-occupants rather than investors.
"If they are serious about stabilizing communities, giving preference to buyers who want to occupy homes would make a huge difference," she said. "Right now, they just want to sell as fast as possible. If an investor has cash, they'll just lap it up - even if it's $20,000 or $30,000 lower" than financed offers that take longer to close.