Written by Mary McCusker
The dream of owning a home may seem, for some, to be only that — a dream. Particularly for first-time home buyers, the process can be intimidating. Mortgage and loan terminology is confusing, mountains of paperwork imposing, and the potential financial risks anxiety-producing.
Buying and owning a home can be daunting even for those with plenty of resources. But for low- and moderate-income people, the challenges may seem insurmountable. They may ask: Am I ready for homeownership? What can I afford? Can “Fair Housing” and “Equal Opportunity” laws help me buy a house? Where do I even begin?
The answers to these questions, for several dozen individuals, were found at the Free Housing and Resource Fair held at Catholic Charities’ Camden office on April 23. The event was sponsored in collaboration with the Southern New Jersey chapter of NAREB (National Association of Real Estate Brokers).
NAREB was founded in 1947, making it the oldest minority trade association in America. It was formed out of a need to secure the right to equal housing opportunities regardless of race, color or creed.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, as of 2017 approximately 64 percent of U.S. households own homes, but the rate among minority groups is well below that at 47 percent. NAREB hopes to improve those rates of minority home ownership with public education and awareness programs across the country.
Recognizing the potential for collaboration between Catholic Charities and NAREB was Curtis Johnson, formerly the Camden Diocese housing director for 16 years, currently senior housing director for the national organization, Catholic Charities USA. Through happenstance, he was introduced to Tammi Trotter, a member of the South Jersey chapter of NAREB.
Explained Johnson, “I learned that NAREB was working across the country to promote home ownership among African Americans and minorities. But oftentimes, they run into the challenge of finding a local agency to collaborate with to host outreach events. Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden, immediately came to mind.”
So, during National Fair Housing Month and National Realist week, the two agencies jointly planned and hosted a free housing and resource fair at Catholic Charities.
The all-day fair featured speakers from NAREB, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Fannie Mae, Chase Bank and Bank of America who detailed the value and process of buying a home, various government-backed loan programs available to low- and moderate-income families, the impact of new tax laws, home insurance and other pertinent topics.
Attendees listened intently, taking notes and asking questions.
Also on-site were Catholic Charities’ housing counselors and financial coaches who met with individuals facing distressed housing and financial situations.
Explained Lauren Mascino, housing counselor and senior case manager for Catholic Charities’ Gloucester office, “It’s a combination of working with people one-on-one and determining what barriers they’re facing. Our goal is to guide and equip clients with the tools and information to accomplish important steps like cleaning up their credit, developing their budgets, and planning for their financial futures. We provide them with these tools so that, ultimately, they’ll be able to be self-sufficient and be able to do it themselves as they move forward toward a more stable life.”
Catholic Charities, through its matched-savings program, also offers eligible clients the opportunity to open an IDA (Individual Development Account), a savings account for working, income-qualified individuals and families to save for buying a home. By opening and saving through this account, they are matched two dollars for every dollar they save.
Remarked one enthusiastic participant, “My wife and I have steady jobs, but I always thought that owning our own home was out of reach. But after today … I’m thinking that if we’re careful with budgeting and maybe taking advantage of one of the [special loan programs], we just might be able to swing it.”
Reflected Curtis Johnson, “I’m so proud that my home diocese stepped up to the plate and led the effort. It is a model for Catholic Charities member agencies across the country. It was a great day and I’m so proud of the work and collaboration that went into it. Catholic Charities and NAREB both saw what needed to be done and they made it happen.”