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Home Sweet Loan

A state agency is determined to guide renters and first-time homebuyers through the perils of a roaring real estate market.

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City officials cheer that Richmond's looking good.

But what about those who can't afford a $1,000-per-month apartment or a $300,000 house? The state's housing finance agency, the Virginia Housing Development Authority, is newly determined to help renters and would-be homeowners who may get lost in a cutthroat market, both in Richmond and across the state.

While interest rates have dropped, "It's become more of a sellers' market, so the price of a house has continued to go up," observes Susan Dewey, VHDA's executive director. People who already own a home and can take advantage of appreciation in housing prices are well-positioned to go for a second house, Dewey says.

But first-time buyers aren't so lucky. "Incomes have not kept pace with housing costs," Dewey says. "So many of the people we're trying to serve, as they look for that American dream, it's getting further and further out of their reach."

The VHDA, in its fourth year under Dewey, now is trying to lengthen the reach of those would-be homebuyers, while also balancing the influx of high-rent housing with developments both attractive and affordable.

Their customers are varied: Young couples who know nothing about buying a house. People who are familiar with the lending process but don't have the funds for a down payment. Families who have bought a house but struggle to pay the mortgage. Developers who plan to build moderate-rent apartments. Disabled renters who can't find apartments to fit.

It's a big job, but it's a big organization. VHDA, headquartered on Belvidere just north of the river, controls $7.8 billion in assets. Its bond rating (VHDA is financed entirely by bonds, not state money) is the highest possible. And it's one of the top housing-development agencies in the nation, in terms of money loaned and clients served.

Financial matters are the forte of Dewey, 46. She worked in the state treasury for 17 years as director of debt management and then as state treasurer. Her practical experience with issuing bonds lent itself easily to running VHDA — but money is only a means to an end, she says.

"We operate very much like a private organization, like a business. Like a bank," she says. "… At the same time, we've got to be careful that we don't lose sight of our public purpose." The agency's success as an independent lending institution meant "sometimes people would almost forget that we were governmental. And we are governmental."

With that in mind, Dewey refocused on the public by setting up seven advisory groups, composed of real estate agents, mortgage lenders, local government officials, nonprofits, developers and representatives of different cultures.

Dewey also instituted the first-ever statewide housing-needs assessment, for which VHDA served as host for nine forums across the state. At the forums, people were asked about "what they thought the key housing needs were in their area."

Their ideas, she says, have helped reinvent VHDA as no longer just a huge lending agency, but "a mobilizing force in affordable housing." That means tailoring lending rates to customers with low incomes or credit problems and even eliminating down payments for some.

And that means teaching budgeting, so people can stay in the homes they buy. For many families, she says, an unforeseen expense like repairing a heating system in the middle of winter may mean the mortgage won't get paid.

The goal, explains Katie O'Rourke, VHDA's media affairs manager, is to "work with its consumers and hold their hands." Not just during the lending procedure, but for a year, or even two, she says. That "makes us extra-human for consumers."

The agency needs to extend those services to as many communities as possible, Dewey says. There's wide gap between the number of non-Hispanic whites who are buying homes and the number of African-Americans, Hispanics and other minorities who are. "Many times, minority communities don't quite trust [lending companies], because there's a lot of fear," Dewey says. Often, they're not just first-time, but first-generation homebuyers, meaning their families can't help guide them through the process.

In February, VHDA launched The Genesis Project in Richmond, a partnership with mortgage lenders and 32 local churches to offer free Saturday classes on the nuts and bolts of buying a house. Having churches host the classes creates an atmosphere of "trust and comfort," says Toni Ostrowski, a housing-initiatives officer for VHDA. And so far, interest in the classes (which will continue through October) has been so great, she says, that VHDA doesn't have the manpower to expand them to Tidewater, as was originally planned.

Another focus for VHDA is serving those with disabilities, whether mental, physical or a combination. People with disabilities, including the elderly, don't want to be shuffled off to a remote care-facility, she says. "They want to live in the community." The agency seeks out developers who are willing to build housing that's accessible, Dewey says, which can mean anything from lowering light switches to locating apartments on a bus line. "It doesn't cost anything to make your doorways wider," she points out — while making that simple change may make a development eligible for VHDA's low-interest financing and tax credits.

These goals come together in Dewey's vision of VHDA as an agency that can shape communities. In the near future, Dewey says, staff will begin working with local government officials, first in Richmond and Petersburg, on development plans that will include housing for all. While VHDA was once divided into two divisions, single-family homes and multifamily (or rental) housing, it's now one — because, as Dewey points out, healthy neighborhoods are made of both. And plans are in the works for a publicity campaign to fight "not in my back yard" sentiments in neighborhoods that fear mixed-income developments.

"None of these [goals] are particularly easy yet," Dewey says with a chuckle. "That's why we call it strategic, because it's long-term in nature. But I think we're going in the right direction." S

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