Shirwanda Odom is about to take a giant step.
She’s in the process of buying the Cleveland home she’s been renting for 15 years. It’s the house she moved into with her son after they’d been living with her mother. It’s where she began and established a career as a patient discharge support coordinator at University Hospitals. While living in the home, she married her husband of 10 years. It’s where holidays and birthdays have been celebrated.
“Buying this house means a lot,” Odom says. “It was the first place me and my son came back to to re-establish our home. It’s the first home my immediate family has owned. We’ve had a lot of gatherings and happy times here.”
The single-family house was developed by Cleveland Housing Network (CHN), an organization widely recognized as the first to establish a lease-to-purchase program using the low-income housing tax credit (LIHTC).
CHN hit a milestone last year when it sold its 1,000th home under the program, which was launched in 1987.
“Think about 1,000 families taking title to their single-family homes,” says Rob Curry, CHN executive director. “We only began hitting year 16 in 2002 or 2003.”
The federal housing credit is largely a rental housing program, helping finance the creation of affordable apartments that serve individuals and families earning no more than 60% of the area median income (AMI). Under CHN’s model, households rent for 15 years and then have the opportunity to buy their homes.
Dating to 1981, the group began as a coalition of neighborhood organizations to tackle the problem of vacant housing. With that history as its compass, CHN began working on the idea of a lease–purchase model for low-income families even before the LIHTC was born five years later. It was experimenting using Community Development Block Grants, but the scale was small, and the group built only about 20 or 30 homes a year.
CHN was able to eventually ramp up the program by regularly earning LIHTC reservations from the Ohio Housing Finance Agency to work on approximately 50 to 100 scattered-site developments each year. So far, the organization has developed about 2,200 homes under the program.
“Cleveland is very much a town of single-family homes,” says Kate Monter Durban, CHN assistant director. “We found this product to be highly desired among people who are raising a family. They want a yard. They want the opportunity to own their own home.”
The typical resident is a single mother with a couple of children and an income below 50% of the AMI, according to CHN leaders, who stress that the transition to homeownership doesn’t happen overnight. Instead, the organization prepares residents years in advance of buying their home.
Helping Families succeed
Under the group’s Family Success Initiative, CHN tracks the results of individual financial counseling provided twice a year to all lease–purchase residents who are within five years of buying their home. Right now, that’s more than 400 households receiving targeted financial and homeownership counseling.
Odom, for example, has participated over the past few years in individual counseling, as well as a series of courses on money management and the homeownership process, to prepare her for the big step.
In year 16, the home is sold for the outstanding debt. The median sales price is $19,750. CHN has seen about 85% to 90% of its families transition to take title to their homes.
“What we believe, and our track record demonstrates, is that low-income families can succeed as homeowners, provided they can afford it,” says Durban. “We have coined something called ‘the equivalency principle,’ which says that if a low-income family has been successful in paying their rent every month, they’ll succeed as a homeowner, provided that their costs as a homeowner are the same as or less than what they’ve been paying in rent.”
The average monthly rent is about $550. Mortgage payments are about $275 a month, but the homeowners are now responsible for other costs, too, such as utilities, insurance, and taxes, so the total amount of housing expenses tend to be comparable when everything is factored in, according to CHN.
The organization tracks families for five years after they take title to their homes, so at any time CHN is monitoring about 500 new homeowners. So far, the results are impressive. The most recent snapshot found 98% of the families still living in their homes and only one out of 500 losing their home. The rest of the remaining 2% went through a regular market sale, according to Curry.
“What you’re seeing is stable, affordable housing, which is the platform for everything else people do in their lives,” he says.
CHN has acquired many of its sites from the city and county land banks, and its primary LIHTC partners have been Enterprise Community Investment, KeyBank, and Ohio Capital Corporation for Housing (OCCH).
“CHN has used the LIHTC program in a systematic, scalable, and strategic way to stabilize and revitalize Cleveland neighborhoods as they build assets for low-income families,” says Hal Keller, OCCH president. “Several of OCCH’s other partners have used the single-family lease–purchase model throughout Ohio with mixed success. What makes CHN so successful in the execution of their approach is their effective property management, the work with individual households around the needs of each family, and the innovative and flexible financing CHN has designed.
“CHN is truly a national leader in demonstrating the power of the LIHTC program and the partnerships that are created in the delivery of affordable housing,” Keller adds.
For a developer, the lease–purchase model comes with unique challenges. “You’ve got to develop an expertise in mastering a large number of small transactions,” says Curry.
Unlike on a large multifamily housing project, CHN is overseeing multiple construction sites. And when the homes are built, it means managing all the individual properties. When it comes time to pay for water and sewer or real estate taxes, CHN will receive more than a thousand bills.
For CHN, the program has been a labor of love, a way to make the American dream come true for low-income families.
The lease–purchase initiative is CHN’s flagship program, but it’s only part of the group’s work. The organization has hit 6,000 total units developed, both single-family and multifamily.
The lead developer in Cuyahoga County’s Housing First Initiative, CHN has assembled financing for 700 units of permanent supportive housing in operation or under development in nine properties. Its partners in the initiative to end chronic homelessness are Cuyahoga County’s Office of Homeless Services, EDEN (Emerald Development and Economic Network), FrontLine Service, and Enterprise Community Partners.
As part of the effort, CHN recently completed the $11.5 million Commons at West Village project in Cleveland’s Detroit Shoreway neighborhood. Financed mainly with LIHTCs, the development provides 66 one-bedroom apartments and supportive services for some of the city’s most vulnerable residents.
CHN, which has 171 full-time employees, has also carved out another niche working with different partners to preserve Sec. 202 seniors housing developments. The group is working on the final phase of renovations at the 492-unit Westerly Apartments, Ohio’s first Sec. 202 property, with owner Lakewood Senior Citizens. Two of the development’s three buildings have been rehabbed, and renovations are scheduled to begin on the third building this year.
Overall, CHN plans to start construction on four developments this year with 311 units, including its 10th supportive-housing community and a new LIHTC lease–purchase project with 37 homes.
In its mission to create housing affordability and stability, CHN serves a total of 30,000 households a year through an array of housing solutions. As an example, the organization works to help families conserve water and energy and reduce their utility bills. Each year, CHN performs 8,000 energy-conservation services, free of charge, for low-income families, including 2,100 home insulation and furnace replacement jobs that save an average of 33% in heating costs.
It’s work that goes beyond CHN’s pioneering lease–purchase program, but it’s all part of the Network’s mission. “We see ourselves as the housing stability people,” Curry says.