Homeowners program has aided at least 100, ‘hand-in-hand’


[10/23/07] Marvin and Kisha Petro rent an apartment, but won’t for much longer. When the working couple decided to begin looking for a house, they got help from the City of Vicksburg and learned they could qualify for a forgivable loan from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Dallas.

“I’m already excited because we’re almost at closing,” Kisha Petro said. The couple hopes to close in a week or two on a home at 119 Starlight Drive. “We couldn’t afford the closing costs. If we hadn’t known about this, we’d probably still be looking,” she said.

For many, the City of Vicksburg has been the resource for information about financing and programs that help people transition from paying rent to building equity in a house and land of their own. Staffers in the Vicksburg Planning Department have chased after grants that help residents afford down payments and first-mortgage loans, offer counseling and conduct education workshops for aspiring homeowners about financing, credit, budgeting and assistance from state and federal agencies.

Marvin Petro attended the city’s 8-hour homeownership seminar to attain a certificate that made the couple eligible for the Affordable Housing Program, which since 1997 has provided eligible first-time homebuyers in Vicksburg with up to $5,000 toward closing costs of a home. More than 100 Vicksburg homes have been purchased through the program.

Specifics are not known, but the city’s housing programs are facing change, Vicksburg’s three elected officials confirmed last week. As city officials weigh the future of the planning department employees who administer grant monies from state, federal and nonprofit entities for first-time homebuyers, one thing is for sure. Renewal of the grant that funds the Affordable Housing Program missed a Sept. 15 deadline because city officials would not sign the application. That cycle is lost.

Mayor Laurence Leyens said discussions about the future of affordable housing programs sponsored by the city are now on hold. Earlier he said costs of running the programs were the main factor. Leyens also said he did not sign a renewal application for a $100,000 grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Dallas because there was no money budgeted this year for a $25,000 local match.

Leyens also said a possible plan to expand programs countywide was being discussed. By law, the planning department can only assist with making and closing applications for properties in Vicksburg’s city limits.

“You can eliminate the program, but you won’t eliminate the need,” said housing coordinator Leona Stringer, who was informed by the personnel department that she and program director Beatrice Moore will likely be cut at the end of 2007 as the city phases out programs that have helped put low-income homebuyers in touch with federal and state assistance since the 1970s.

Planning department employees who administer affordable housing programs said they also work as counselors for people who come in seeking information and guidance. Many more residents get help from the department than end up qualifying for assistance, employees said.

“Most agencies that have any kind of affordable housing program require their participants to get homebuyer education,” said Moore, program director for housing and community block development grants. “Otherwise, you’re setting them up to fail.” Vicksburg is the only area entity that offers the required courses. Also, the Housing Revolving Loan Program and Homebuyer Assistance Program of the Mississippi Development Authority and the Affordable Housing Program, funded by the Federal Home Loan Bank of Dallas, are not open to commercial lenders and must be administered by a municipality or other nonprofit agency.

In a news story last week, Stringer and Moore said they had been told by Lamar Horton, human resources director, they would lose the jobs they’ve had for 30 and 31 years. Leyens and South Ward Alderman Sid Beauman said they had not authorized that directive. Later, Horton affirmed that discussions he had with Moore and Stringer were not explicitly authorized by the city board.

North Ward Alderman Michael Mayfield said the housing programs were efficient, effective and working. He said he could not understand why the other two officials would question them. Leyens said his objection was the cost to city taxpayers to administer programs that might have other sources.

Applicants must meet specific criteria to be eligible for help, including need requirements and proof of a steady income. Terms of the home loan are also reviewed to make sure the buyer will be able to make the payments.

“They took us hand-in-hand through the process, from start to finish,” said Roberta Williams, a single mother who qualified for a grant from the Mississippi Development Authority through Vicksburg’s Homebuyer Assistance Program.

In August, Williams and sons, Billy Williams, 3, and Deion Johnson, 11, moved into their one-story home on Maple Circle. They had been renters in a Washington Street apartment building.

This year, assistance programs garnered Vicksburg an excellence award from the Mississippi Development Authority for “Best Overall Community Impact for a City.”

“Our housing program is the No. 1 program in the state,” former North Ward Alderman Gertrude Young said. “We have been getting money from everyone else because we know how to.”

Young, who works in real estate, pointed out that money through such programs indirectly reaches sellers, real estate brokers, mortgage lenders, bankers, inspectors and skilled laborers.

“This is money into our economy,” Young said.

By Tom Hartwell, The Vicksburg Post


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