By Dianne Anderson

In these tight money times, two of the biggest hurdles for first-time homebuyers are qualifying for financing, and getting enough money to start the home-buying process.

Felicia Brown-Smith said the local Neighborhood Housing Services of the Inland Empire (NHSIE) helps with both.

Their nonprofit is paving the way to close the wealth gap by leading their first-time homebuyers through a plethora of programs and resources.

She said they want to push for more affordable housing to support the local workforce.

“These are people who are working who have a family, but not able to afford a home, they need some assistance to get in. Those may be 80-120% of the area’s median income. We want to have the opportunity to make sure they have what they need,” said Felicia Brown-Smith, Executive Director and CEO of NHSIE.

Felicia Brown-Smith, Executive Director and CEO of NHSIE.

NHSIE provides $10,000 for down payment assistance or closing costs, first mortgage loans, assists with helping clients find a property, and provides the financial education they need to be a successful homeowner.

And getting around the greed factor behind the lack of affordable housing requires vision.

In the past several years, Brown-Smith has watched investors come into the community and buy up properties to cut big profits. Those properties are then converted into rentals with rent pumped up to the highest point that they can get.

“It perpetuates the cycle for lower-income residents mostly in communities of color, and they’re being pushed out,” she said. “NHSIE wants to make sure they have wealth-building opportunities for their families and wealth for future generations in a home that they can call their own.”

It’s also not unusual for the community to pay over half of their income on rent, but owning a starter home is often less expensive than renting. She said their organization works closely with new homebuyers to learn how to sustain what is considered for many the biggest investment of a lifetime.

“We value financial education at NHSIE because we want our community members to succeed in homeownership,” she said. “We have realty and lending, we provide financial fitness classes.”

Brown-Smith moved into her new position at NHSIE within one of the hardest economic times in history. The current tight housing supply means affordable inventory is scarce, as well as a lack of resources and finances.

“There are disparities in the communities that we serve and around the COVID pandemic that all have to be addressed. I believe we’ll come out of this. I’m optimistic despite some of the challenges that I’m seeing in the market,” she said.

Brown-Smith also educates policymakers, legislators, and the federal level about the need to develop local affordable housing solutions.

She said that financing choices are available for low to moderate-income buyers and communities of color to get innovative affordable housing opportunities. Some buyers may be able to access affordable housing alternatives, like lower-cost standalone manufactured homes.

At this time renters cannot be evicted, which is good, but she said mom and pop landlords are taking the hit. Many are unable to pay their mortgages while their renters are not paying some or all of their rent.

NHSIE is also looking to work with those landlords as well. They may want to sell their properties and move on to another investment, and in turn, NHSIE could purchase the properties to sell back to the community at an affordable price.

“Building is still going on, but it’s not an affordable price point. We would aim to work with mom and pop landlords if they wanted to sell, we would explore potentially purchasing that property,” she said.

Overall, for communities of color, she feels housing remains one of the best wealth-building tools around.

“It is the best way to escape some of the societal ills, whether that’s poverty, or not living in safe communities, or have great schools, it’s often how people are able to move up (after resale),” she said.

Program support comes from recent grant funding, $394,500 from NeighborWorks America, which will help boost efforts to create innovative affordable housing opportunities for low and moderate-income neighborhoods. Recently announced by Rep. Pete Aguilar, the funding is part of a $680,000 award, with $295,000 also allocated to Neighborhood Partnership Housing Services, Inc. to support affordable housing programs in the Inland Empire.

“Our nonprofit partners like NPHS and NHSIE play huge roles in making sure San Bernardino County families have access to the affordable housing and community resources they need to succeed. I’m proud to support these types of federal funding initiatives to make sure organizations like these can continue to offer these programs,” said Aguilar.

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