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From hope to homeowner

A non-profit group in Pinellas serves as ally and adviser to low- to middle-income people struggling to buy a place they can call their own.

By TERESA BURNEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 9, 1999


CLEARWATER -- Geneva Fisher has always wanted to own a home.

In the summer of 1994 that vague desire became her all-consuming passion. That's when she joined the HomeBuyers Club, a not-for-profit organization that helps low- to moderate-income people in Pinellas County buy houses. With its help, she set out on a mission to transform herself into the kind of person banks give mortgages to.

This is how Fisher re-created herself in the past four-and-a-half years. The 34-year-old school bus driver and nursing assistant:

Worked seven days a week at two jobs.

Paid off $20,000 in credit card debt.

Fed her family "survival" food of turkey necks and ham hocks to save money.

Told her five children "no" when they asked to go to the movies or for new clothes.

And, ultimately, sacrificed her marriage to the cause when her husband failed to share her goal.

On a morning in November, Fisher was finally close to buying the $54,000 four-bedroom house near Clearwater's Sandy Lane Elementary School that she has rented for two years. Yet she was reluctant to talk about achieving the goal that has cost her so much for fear of jinxing her opportunity.

She had been close to buying a house before, only to have her dreams dashed at the last minute. This time, a few weeks before her scheduled closing, she was being cautious. This time she was almost too frightened to hope. Fisher would spend the next few weeks worrying, fretting and wondering whether this time would be different.

"I'll believe it when I sign on the dotted line," she said, her eyes filling with tears. "If I don't make it this time, I will have to give up. I don't know if I would be able to handle it. I pushed myself more than I ever pushed myself before."

It's difficult for people like Fisher to become homeowners. She is one of the working poor. She makes about $10 an hour and works about 50 hours a week at her two jobs, but that doesn't go far when you have five children and one grandchild to support. Nor is the home-buying process always friendly to people like Fisher.

Some real estate agents and lenders would rather deal with wealthier customers who will buy more expensive houses, generate higher commissions and have an easier time qualifying for a loan.

But Fisher found a strong ally and inspiration in The HomeBuyers Club. The club, part of the Tampa Bay Community Development Corp., is supported by government grants and the help of volunteers.

"We take individuals whose dream it is to own their own home, but who can't qualify for some reason, then we try to help them become the perfect person that all bankers want to do business with," said Randy Harvey, the club's coordinator.

The club has about 1,300 members. They used to have meetings, but the membership climbed so high that it became difficult to find a place big enough. By last week, 328 of the members had successfully bought houses and about 65 more were close. Equally significant, there have been no foreclosures of homes bought by club members.

The club's counselors offer advice and guidance, not money, to their clients. Counselors help each member develop a financial plan for buying a house, then help them stick to it. The only fee is $15 for a credit check.

Counselors also teach members how to clean up their credit, steer them toward programs that help low-income home buyers with down payments, and show them how to shop for Realtors and lenders. But, mostly, counselors provide clients with hope.

"We're cheerleaders," Harvey said.

The club sends out newsletters chronicling the home purchases of successful members and offering home-buying tips. Counselors call members at least once a month to check on their progress. And they help re-inspire them when something happens to throw their home-buying plan off track.

"They helped me at about the lowest point of my life," Fisher said. "At the HomeBuyers Club, they really, deep down, care about you. They want to see you achieve. Most people that work in that business don't show a whole lot of caring."

Roadblocks on the road to homeownership are common, Harvey said.

"There are many people who are in trouble because they barely make enough money to pay for the bare essentials," he said.

So when a car breaks down or somebody gets sick and there is no insurance, things fall apart.

"There's always a disaster around the corner," he said. "We try to help them develop a support system so that when that happens they don't give up."

While some people can achieve homeownership by saving more and spending less, others need to earn more.

"Sometimes it means a better job, a different job or a second job," he said. "Or taking all the overtime they can get."

Many people, like Fisher, have to take on extra work and change their entire lifestyles as well, Harvey said. That's not easy, because it means changing patterns of behavior that may have gotten them in debt before, he said.

Most middle-class people, who had no trouble buying their homes, couldn't change their lives the way many HomeBuyers Club members have, he said.

"You and I would just give up," he said. "I've always had the philosophy that these are the real heroes of the world."

And Fisher is way up on his list of heroes.

"She just keeps bouncing back from disasters," he said. "She has been body-slammed so many times."

Fisher was one of the 5-year-old club's charter members. While other members successfully bought houses in an average of 13 months, things kept happening to Fisher.

She had to get rid of the massive credit card debt. She and her husband separated. She had premature twins who needed extensive hospitalization about the same time that her 13-year-old oldest daughter gave birth. Now she battles diabetes.

At one point, she was close to getting another house when complications developed and the deal fell through at the last minute. That's when her husband, who had shared her dream, decided the sacrifices weren't worth it for him, according to Fisher. She said the rift over financial goals caused the couple to separate.

"Our dreams got lost somewhere," she said. Still, she decided to persevere on her own. She wanted to own a house because her father had owned a house, and so had her grandmother. She wanted her children to see her achieve something important and big.

"It was all about my children," she said.

Her offspring, who range from 18 to 5, didn't always understand her home-buying obsession. They wanted to have new clothes like other children at school and they were unhappy when they couldn't order in pizza or Chinese food anymore. When she bought them clothes from Goodwill, she didn't tell them where they came from.

"My kids did without a lot," she said. "It was hard to say, "No.' " Especially because she was never sure whether the sacrifices would pay off.

She didn't know for sure until the Saturday before Christmas. That's when she finally signed on the dotted line and become a home buyer, four years, five months and five days after joining the HomeBuyers Club. No other club member has taken so long to buy a house.

Chances are, no other member has cried more or hugged Randy Harvey harder either.

"Thank you, thank you, thank you," she whispered in his ear while giving him a bear hug. Then she let go and danced a jig.

Even as a homeowner Fisher will remain a member of the HomeBuyers Club. But now she will get a different newsletter, one that offers advice for homeowners and helps them stay away from the temptations of new credit cards and all those offers for home-equity loans that arrive in the mail soon after people buy homes.

"We have had some members get (125 percent home equity loan offers) three days after they moved in," Harvey said.

The offers can tempt club members to stop living the frugal life that got them out of financial trouble and helped them buy their houses. Harvey hopes the newsletter helps them fight the urge to spend more than they make and resist the "easy money" offers.

An hour after signing the mortgage papers, Fisher went home to mop the white vinyl kitchen floor that she has hated since she moved in. It seems to show every footprint, and there are many feet in Fisher's house.

"This is going," she said. She hopes to replace the beige carpet in the living room as well. Still, she knows she must save for these things.

"My main thing is to not debt again," she said, pushing her mop into a corner.

(To volunteer or join the HomeBuyers Club call (727) 446-6222.)

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