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Week of 6.27.08

From Homeless to Homeowner

When single mom Lena began saving for a house six years ago, she was earning just nine dollars an hour as an office assistant. Counselors with the nonprofit group Neighborhood Housing Services of America helped her tackle her debts and regularly set aside savings. Using utility bills and rent statements as an alternative way to prove her credit history, she was finally able to afford down-payment on a three-bedroom home in Moorpark, California.

This is an edited transcript of Lena's interview with David Brancaccio.

Brancaccio (DB): So tell me, there was a point in your life that you found yourself with the kids at a homeless shelter?

Lena (LF): Yeah I was in a homeless shelter. It was towards the end of 1997. Two of my kids were babies.

DB: Things had gotten so bad, that that was the only alternative?

LF: Yeah, the relationship with their father wasn't very good at all. I was driven to go to a shelter.

DB: What was it like living in a shelter with young children?

LF: Well, it was difficult because every time you left, they would drug-test you. They wanted to make sure that no one under the influence was coming in. So that was kind of embarrassing. But you do what you have to do to have a place to live. We ended up living there for six months. I said to myself, "What am I going to do?" Childcare, job, and then save up money to move into a home.

DB: Was there ever a point in your life where you thought you'd never own a home?

LF: Absolutely, for a long time. But the price of rents were really going up, I mean what I was paying in rent is more than what I am paying on the house payment now. I'd go buy the paper and see if I'm close to affording a house. But of course it was maybe a mobile home that didn't allow kids

DB: So how did the counselors that work with Neighborhood Housing Services of America help you think about getting into a house like this?

LF: Well, I started going to homeownership classes, and they made it sound possible. So I asked them, "What do I have to do?" And they said, "Let's take a look at your credit." Eventually I cleaned it up enough that everything was paid.

Brancaccio: So you cleaned up your credit, a lot of effort involved in that, and then what did you do?

LF: I wrote letters to developers, asking if they were planning on developing homes set aside for affordable housing. After months of trying, I got a letter in the mail that said we are having an affordable housing lottery. That day came and I was waiting, but I was a backup buyer. And then within a month, I got a call. Guess what? Somebody fell out of the process, and you're the seventh buyer!

DB: And now your mortgage each month is lower than what it would be to rent?

LF: Yes. My mortgage right now is under $1,200 a month, and that includes my property tax and my insurance.

DB: Tell me about the house.

LF: It's a two-story house on a block with six and seven hundred thousand dollar homes, but we blend in. I mean when you think "affordable house", you think, OK, it must be plywood put together and paint slapped on. But it's not like that at all. It's a beautiful stucco home, in a nice modern tract.

DB: Did you ever imagine back at the low point for your family that you would find yourself in a home like this?

LF: Never. I don't know. God's plan is something else. But I just had to follow my heart and be true to myself. Things will happen in time. It happened so fast and it's just amazing you know that one year I was a homeowner after everything I went through.