McKEESPORT, Pa. — With special care, Mary Snyder tends the yellow chrysanthemums in front of her house. Tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, peppers and watermelon grow in the backyard.
Her husband, Merrian, has built a basement bar and converted a third-floor attic into a fourth bedroom in their single-family house.
After living in public housing for 17 years, the couple in January became the nation's first tenants to buy their government-owned home under a pilot federal program that helps lower-income tenants achieve the American dream of home ownership.
"You're doing for yourself instead of doing for someone else. You can say it's your house. Before, it was someone else's. Now, you own it," the 57-year-old Mary Snyder said in an interview.
'It Was Worth It'
"I just never thought I'd live to see the day we would own our house. We never had the money for a down payment. When you get into your 50s and you don't have a house, you don't ever think it will happen," she said. "It was worth it. I'm happy. I like it. It's a nice place."
The Snyders initiated the public housing ownership demonstration program, run by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development as an alternative to subsidized renting.
Their single-family frame home, trimmed with green aluminum siding and a pillared porch along a tree-lined street, sits in a working-class neighborhood of this Monongahela River city 15 miles south of Pittsburgh.
About 1,500 subsidized homes are available under the test program. Their locations include Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland and Chicago.
Officials say the pace of sales is about as expected because of careful screening to make sure that families can afford the payments.
The first sales were of single-family detached houses. People living in multifamily units must form cooperatives before they buy; the first co-op sale will probably occur by year's end.
"It's not slow. We want to make sure tenants can handle the payments and that the price is set right. We want to make sure we're not overburdening anybody," Ken Beirne, a HUD official, said.
There are critics. U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) believes the sales might exhaust the stock of public housing and that buyers might make windfall profits because there are no limitations on resales.
"It helps some poor people tremendously. It leaves others bereft of public housing. It's a widespread sale of good housing and no replacement for it. What about the people who are going to need housing five years down the road?" Frank said.
HUD officials disagree.
Value of Homes Limited
"It's not leaving anybody bereft. Those people would be staying in those units anyway," Beirne said. "The housing is usually found in working-class areas, so there is a built-in limit to their value. Public housing residents aren't buying any places in Beverly Hills.
"Just from the reaction and response of the residents, we are very gratified with the program. We see it as a valuable addition to the quality of life for residents of public housing," he added. "And home ownership seems to have the ability to improve a community overall."
The Snyders had lived in their home for three years, paying a subsidized rent of $400 a month.
The couple's $25,000 interest-free mortgage is owned by the McKeesport Housing Authority. The Snyders will pay $421 a month, which includes taxes and insurance, for eight years.
The family's combined gross annual income is $20,900. Snyder, 59, is a maintenance mechanic for the McKeesport Housing Authority. The Snyders' daughter, Ruth, 32, and grandson, Tony, 9, live with them.
HUD makes a monthly check on buyers to make sure that payments are being made.
Must Meet Payments
Of the 10 houses in McKeesport eligible for the program, two are under mortgage and four others are part of a lease-option arrangement. If tenants prove they can handle monthly payments, at the end of a year their lease is rolled over as a down payment on the house and the mortgage is put in their name.
John Kooser, executive director of the McKeesport Housing Authority, gives the program high marks.
"Everybody benefits from this program," he said. "The tenants . . . are building equity and they'll have something of value. The property is returned to the tax rolls. And the property and the tenant no longer require a federal subsidy, so the taxpayer benefits."
Kooser has heard complaints from persons who say they bought their homes without any government breaks or handouts.
"There are some critics who say we're giving something to people who haven't earned it. They think these people have been on welfare, on the dole all their lives. Now, we're handing them something again," Kooser said.
"All of the buyers are required to have certified levels of income well above welfare income. They're responsible enough. They're going to make it."