ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. •The Bernalillo County Housing Department has emerged as a leader in using Sec. 8 housing vouchers to help families achieve the dream of homeownership.

The department has used the vouchers to assist 121 families in becoming homeowners during the last four years. That’s one of the largest numbers of closings by any agency under the program. The number of participants has increased each year in Bernalillo County, and it was expected to hit 25 in 2005, according to Richard Chavez, housing director.

Approximately 6% of the department’s 2,000 vouchers are going toward homeownership, he said.

Nationwide, there have been more than 4,000 closings under the voucher homeownership program, according to recent Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) statistics.

In general, the Housing Choice Voucher Homeownership Program allows first-time homebuyers to use a Sec. 8 voucher to help them with their monthly mortgage costs instead of using it as a rental voucher. The monthly tenant payment is generally 30% of the family’s adjusted monthly income.

HUD began allowing housing authorities to use the vouchers for homeownership opportunities several years ago. Bernalillo County implemented its program in the summer of 2001 and had its first closing that year.

“One of the amazing things about the program is that our average home sale price is about $99,000, and the average family income has been less than $15,000 a year,” Chavez said. He estimates that participating families earn about 30% to 35% of the area median income.

Chavez and his department were recently honored for their voucher program by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. About 60% of the homes are owned by Hispanics.

Although the Bernalillo County Housing Department has had success with the program, it’s not without challenges, according to Chavez, who has assisted other housing agencies interested in establishing a program.

Homeownership is a whole new area for departments that are used to administering rental programs, he said. Many simply do not have a homeownership expert on staff, so one of the biggest obstacles is finding someone who understands the mortgage and loan process.

The program is also tough in extremely expensive housing markets, where the cost of land and homes makes deals difficult to pencil out. Chavez won’t say that the program is impossible in those markets, but he does say that it will “take a great deal of creativity in those places.”

The program is in line with the White House’s emphasis on homeownership. HUD may also benefit from the program because a mortgage will be a fixed cost, unlike rental rates that can rise.

For families, the big hurdle is having good credit, according to Chavez. Individuals with poor credit do not qualify.

Bernalillo County has partnered with several other organizations in the Albuquerque region to provide homeownership counseling, downpayment assistance or loans. They include the New Mexico Mortgage Finance Authority, Home New Mexico, Neighborhood Housing Services and Suburban Mortgage Co.

Homeownership counseling is one of the requirements of the program. Families are also responsible for securing their own financing. They must raise 3% of the sales prices as a downpayment. Of this 3%, 1% must come out of the buyer’s pocket.

Since the start of the program, six families have gone over-income so they are making house payments without the vouchers. One family withdrew from the program in favor of renting. There has yet to be a foreclosure.