Home Economics: Home Buy Now helps employees' purchases

March 30, 2012

Family in front of new home

Valerie Garfield had a vision 18 years ago that someday - she wasn't sure when - she would own the house one door away from her mother's on South 46th Street. 

That dream became a reality Jan. 30. The house, which she had been renting for several years, was hers at last. 

"Look at what God did!" exclaimed Garfield, 52. To which her daughter, Kimberly Johnson, 23, added: "It's about time she got this house. It was really stressing her out." 

With assistance from a relaunched city program called Home Buy Now and her longtime employer, the University of Pennsylvania, Garfield was able to buy the house for $50,000, cover closing costs, and have enough left over to pay for some much-needed improvements. 

Home Buy Now provides matching funds of up to $4,000 per buyer to employees of companies and institutions in targeted Philadelphia neighborhoods that offer grants or forgivable loans for home purchases. Garfield received $3,729 from the city and the same amount through the university. 

Penn, Temple, and Drexel are anchor institutions, with those grants targeting their neighborhoods.

Matching grants of up to $2,000 are available to employees who buy houses outside the targeted neighborhoods. One such house is across town from Garfield's, on 71st Avenue in West Oak Lane, where Janice Pompey, 45, didn't even try to hide her enthusiasm about her first foray into homeownership.

From the moment she unlocked her front door, acknowledging a neighbor who was looking under the hood of his car, Pompey listed everything she was planning to do to the house she bought for $155,000 with the help of Home Buy Now. 

Oh, yes, and apologizing a few times for what she said was a "messy house" - one in which she and her contractor already are redoing the kitchen. 

"I only moved in two weeks ago," said Pompey, for the last five years the center manager for NewCourtland Life, a senior-care provider in Mount Airy and a participating employer. She received $2,000 from Home Buy Now and $3,000 from NewCourtland. 

Pompey, who had been renting a two-bedroom apartment in Horsham with her son, Ronald Roberts III, 21, closed on the house Feb. 12. 

"This is the neighborhood where I was born and raised," she said. "Although I've lived in the suburbs for many years, this is home. Many of my friends live close by, and the neighbors have been welcoming." 

Best of all, her office on Germantown Avenue in Mount Airy is a short drive away. 

Although she said she had a lot of plans for changes to the house, "I also know that you don't over-improve a place so that it becomes the most expensive house in the neighborhood. 

"My goal is to make a place where my son and I will feel comfortable," said Pompey, who was awaiting an invasion of friends over the weekend to help her paint. 

Home Buy Now first saw the light of day in 2005. By 2009, when the program went on a two-year hiatus because of state budget problems, it had made 211 matching grants totaling $696,330 to employees purchasing houses in Philadelphia. 

The resurrected program, administered with the Greater Philadelphia Urban Affairs Coalition, has given 84 matching grants totaling $84,000 since July 2011, resulting in $5.3 million in home sales. Nineteen participating employers are signed on thus far, and they have provided a total of $175,000 toward the purchases of houses since July. 

Home Buy Now is focusing on the three employers in targeted areas; up to four targeted neighborhoods will be defined by those anchor institutions. 

The Urban Affairs Coalition and the city said this incarnation of the program would help about 240 finance their home purchases over the next two years, depending on how many buyers take the $4,000 and $2,000 matching grants. 

Home Buy Now will leverage $735,000 in public funds into more than $29 million in home sales in the Philadelphia market within the next two years, they said. 

Penn has been providing employer-assisted housing benefits since the 1960s, said Nicole Hudson, the program manager for Penn Home Owner Services. The university offers a $7,500 forgivable loan that can be used for closing costs, down payment, buying down points, and/or interior or exterior improvements. Home buyers can also use the funds to convert a multifamily dwelling into a single-family home. 

In addition, its closing-cost-reduction program offers prospective buyers mortgage-financing options that feature discounted closing costs of 0.25 percent of the mortgaged amount. 

Garfield, who has worked as a technician for the University of Pennsylvania Health System for 21 years, tried to buy her circa-1930s twin on South 46th Street before she rented it, but the deal fell through because of a lien "without a dollar amount" against it. 

That's when she struck a deal with the children of the deceased owner to rent the unoccupied house - at first for free, then for $200 a month and assuming the yearly taxes.

During those years, the house became a magnet for neighborhood children, who came to play with daughter Kimberly and son Oscar Johnson, now 30, as photos throughout the living room attest. 

"Their parents called this the 'Crayola House,'?" Garfield said as the family cat, appropriately named Garfield, darted in and out of the furniture. 

She is using what funds remain from buying the house and closing costs to make necessary repairs and renovate the interior. 

Major expenses before the bank would even approve Garfield's loan were removing lead paint and rebuilding the front entrance to the house. 

"It had never occurred to me that you would have to spend so much money before you could even get a mortgage," she said. 

Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472, aheavens@phillynews.com, or @alheavens at Twitter.

Information is available at www.uac.org/philadelphiahomebuynow or by calling 215-851-1955.

Al Heavens
Philadelphia Inquirer