Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Lease-to-purchase program provides pathway to homeownership

By Pam Bailey, blogger for NeighborWorks America

Kalamazoo, MI, was hard hit by the housing crisis. Traditionally a first-mortgage lender, with 600 loans in its portfolio, Kalamazoo Neighborhood Housing Services could no longer offer that assistance as banks pulled back. Meanwhile, as unemployment also soared, foreclosures swept the city and even now, four years later, home values are stagnating and lack of investment is destabilizing the neighborhoods.

“We needed a strategy to provide a bridge to homeownership, while also stabilizing the community by avoiding the abandoned buildings and absentee landlords experienced elsewhere,” says Matt Lager, executive director of NHS, which recently celebrated 20 years of membership in the NeighborWorks network. “So we developed a lease-to-purchase program.  The formula is simple: We acquire and rehab a vacant or foreclosed property on a target block, lease to clients who are just shy of mortgage-ready and prepare them to become homeowners. The result: We now have a pipeline of families who will transition to homeowners within 12 to 18 months.”

One of the families now leasing a home, with plans
to purchase. 
In the first two years of the program, Lager’s organization acquired 11 houses outright, thanks to a combination of land donations, grants and capital from NeighborWorks America. Five more acquisitions are planned for the coming year. Demand has been high, with 20 “bidders” for every home available. In return for the affordable lease and down payment assistance when the time comes, renters agree to participate in monthly financial-management coaching sessions. If they don’t follow through, or decide not to purchase within two years, they lose their “option fee,” equivalent of one month’s rent. (If participants comply with the action plan they develop with their coach, the purchase deadline can be extended.)

To date, the program has a high success rate: Four of the participants will become homeowners in the first half of 2014; only two have opted out due to what Lager calls the programs initial “learning curve.”

Lessons learned

“One of the lessons we learned in implementing this program is to select and then rehab houses that would attract future homeowners,” explains Lager. “People need to fall in love with a house to stay motivated.”

The other lesson Lager’s team would pass on to others who might want to offer a similar program is that it requires deep relationships with leasers.

“Although the financial-management sessions are focused on budgets, repairing their credit, etc., you can’t help but get involved in all of the other issues that dictate whether these families can be successful at homeownership,” says Lager, adding that the NHS financial-capability coaches have backgrounds in social work. “That means dealing with unemployment, for instance, and similar challenges.”

Foreclosures may have gone down, but the financial struggles of the approximately 21,000 people living in the six neighborhoods served by NHS continue, and the “lease-purchase” program will help provide a pathway to homeownership.