Wednesday, December 18, 2013

West Virginia group demonstrates big impact despite small staff, few resources

Imagine you lead a four-person organization that serves a city with a population of just more 7,000 people, 20 percent of whom are below the poverty line, and a lack of traditional funders like big banks. That’s the challenge John Elza, executive director of the HomeOwnership Center (HOC) of Elkins, WV, faces daily.

And then there is the additional dearth of communications channels. “Reaching customers is challenging. There’s not a lot of media and only one daily newspaper. Getting information out is hard,” Elza says. “A lot of folks don’t have a computer.”

However, the smallness in size and resources haven’t stopped HOC from working to achieve a big impact in the 15 years since its founding, despite the lingering impact of the Great Recession.

“Getting to 15 years after the recession was challenging,” Elza admits. “Production numbers were down, but are starting to come back.  We just ended Fiscal Year ‘13 with a 26 percent increase in production over the prior year.”

HOC grew out of the Randolph County Housing Authority, which Elza describes as the incubation unit for the group. “It decided to spin off a private nonprofit that could do different things.”

The organization became a licensed state mortgage broker and then a NeighborWorks charter organization in 2001. This transition was important for HOC.

“The Housing Authority couldn't go after private funding or foundations because it wasn't a 501c3,” Elza explains. “We wanted to become a licensed broker to be more effective. Initially, the focus was on pre-purchase counseling, since there were certain types of mortgages that didn't require a broker's license. When we received our broker's license, it opened the doors to assisting others.”

HOC assists a mostly rural population, providing education and counseling, financing and development primarily to low- and moderate-income households. “We serve an eight-county service area of 130,000 people,” Elza elaborates. “Randolph County is 146 square miles. We’re up in the mountains. Tourism is a big economic factor here. There’s not a lot of actual industry, and only one regional lender in the area. From a fundraising standpoint, that’s a challenge. We don’t have a big banking presence.”

HOC’s mission is to provide safe, affordable housing, focusing on sustainable homeownership, self-sufficiency, sound environments, healthy quality of life and communities that can sustain these values. To fulfill these goals, HOC provides homeownership education and counseling to more than 200 families each year, with more than 50 becoming home buyers. The organization has been so successful in stretching its resources to achieve its mission that its staff often works with individuals elsewhere in the state who want to offer similar services.

Elza recalls one particular family’s story that illustrates the impact that can be achieved, even on a small scale.

Heather Sackett-Scott, William Scott and their two
children in front of their new home.
Heather Sackett-Scott and William Scott have four children, including one with disabilities. They needed to find a home that was both affordable and accessible to a disabled child. HOC provided counseling and education for the family, helping them to become mortgage-ready. The organization then engaged several partners to provide affordable financing. Highland Community Builders provided a lot, CommunityWorks provided the first mortgage at a below-market rate and Woodlands Development Group constructed the accessible home and also provided partial subsidized financing. HOC processed the blended mortgage loan.

Sackett-Scott said afterward, "I’m just grateful that there are programs like this. And I’m pleased to know that there are people doing these things for other people. If it weren't for this program, my family wouldn't be able to get a house like this, a nice home. It just wouldn't happen."

Written by Lindsay Moore, senior media relations specialist for NeighborWorks America.