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Home for the Holidays

Loan programs helped single mom Carolyn Williams find a comfortable nest in Gresham
by: Carole Archer, Carolyn Williams, with her daughter, Evelina, 10, and son, Diego, 2, stand in front of the $230,000 home she bought in Gresham with advice and help from the Portland Housing Project.

On Dec. 11, Carolyn Williams, her two children and black Labrador were living close together in her parents' Gresham home. On Dec. 12, mom, children and dog set up shop in a charming three-bedroom house with hardwood floors and a fireplace.

The dramatic change took a few nights to fully sink in.

'Sunday night was the first time we slept here,' Williams said. 'Now it feels real. This is my house.'

For this 30-year-old single mother with a steady-but-modest salary from a nonprofit agency, those last four words speak volumes. Backed by determination, solid guidance, hard work and a little luck, Williams utilized several programs geared toward first-time buyers to leap from perpetual renter and guest to proud homeowner.

Re/MAX Realty of Gresham, the Home Start match-savings program, Home Street Bank and the Portland Housing Center were all integral to fulfilling Williams' dream.

Williams' mother, Maria, planted the seed. She encouraged her daughter to visit Re/MAX to get the ball rolling. Shar Giard, Re/MAX principal broker, met Williams and referred her to the Portland Housing Center, a nonprofit agency dedicated to assisting first-time homebuyers. For a one-time $50 fee, the Housing Center offers two years' worth of courses that stress financial responsibility, savings strategies and fundamentals of the home-buying process.

'Our goal is to work with folks, give them an education, help them utilize their money, develop savings and work on debt issues,' said Program Manager Michelle Puggarana. 'Sometimes people have significant barriers. We walk them through every step.'

Giard had referred several clients to the center, but Williams, she felt, was an ideal candidate.

'She was the first (client) who ever followed through and did it,' said Giard, a Realtor for 25 years. 'She will not be the last.'

Williams, a native of El Paso, Texas, was ambivalent about the long-term commitment of purchasing a home. But with her children, Evelina, 10, and Diego, 3, enrolled in school, a fulfilling position with the Loaves and Fishes program, and her parents firmly settled in Gresham, she thought more seriously about putting down roots. Still, the prospect was intimidating - at least until she started learning through the Housing Center.

'At the very beginning, it was overwhelming to think of buying something that cost $100,000 to $200,000,' she said. 'After going to the class, it really kind of solidified what was possible, that it was a goal I wanted to reach. Having kids and being in an apartment is really difficult.'

The center offers tools like the Mortgage Assistance Program and the Individual Savings Account. Williams took advantage of the latter. Available for individuals below the 80-percent-median-income line, the Individual Savings Account matches $3 for every $1 a participant deposits in a monitored savings account. By depositing no more than $333 at a time for six months, Williams saved $2,000 through Albina Community Bank. With matching funds, this translated into $6,000.

'That's a gift,' Puggarana said. 'She doesn't have to give that back.'

By attending Lenders Night Out, a Housing Center event that lets homebuyers interact with bankers and mortgage lenders, Williams found another beneficial opportunity through Home Street Bank in Portland. The Home Start program also provides a $3 to $1 match up to a $5,000 total. Like the Individual Savings Account, Home Start can be used to cover down payments or house closing costs. Unlike the Individual Savings Account, it places a lien on the property for five years that must be repaid if the house is sold. After five years of ownership, it essentially becomes a gift.

'It's a secured grant for five years,' said Ralph Austin, loan officer for the Seattle-based Home Street Bank. 'That's how it functions.'

Home Street is one of several banks affiliated with a federal wholesale institution that funds Home Start loans. The allotment for participating banks varies from year to hear.

'We can't guarantee it's available at all times,' Austin said.

Williams applied $1,667 in savings to Home Start. The program matched $3,333 to add up to $5,000. Between the two grants and a 30-year fixed-rate loan at 5.125 percent interest and a mortgate payment of $1,500, Williams felt confident she could afford a house she and the children would enjoy.

'I had almost $10,000 more buying power than I would've had without them,' she said of the grants. 'It was a vehicle that got me to the finish line faster.'

Through Giard and the online Regional Multiple Listing Service, Williams zeroed in on what she wanted. The site, at www.rmls.com, lets home shoppers plug in the amount of space and characteristics they're looking for in different areas.

'I was on that every night,' she said. 'That's how I saw this house.'

With her favored hardwood floors, a fenced, grassy back yard and a family room with skylights, the one-story home on Southeast Morrison Street - just minutes away from her parents' house and Evelina's school - is paradise found.

'After I saw it, no other house made sense,' she said. 'This was perfect. 'Williams paid $230,000 for the home.

Having her parents, Maria and Robert Williams, nearby is another bonus. Their support, she said, was invaluable.

'Dad is a typical overprotective father,' she said. 'He came to the (house) inspections and asked a lot of questions. Being a single mom, they're a huge help overall.'

Maria Williams is impressed with the options available to her daughter. When she and her husband first bought a home, in 1975, they were pretty much on their own.

'This is a great thing for these young people,' she said. 'A lot of people out there don't know about the programs out there to help them.'

Carolyn Williams is amazed how far she's come in a short time.

'It seems like an impossible thing to do - and it's doable.'

For more information on this program, visit www.portland

housingcenter.org.