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Finding the House Key

HomeChoice helps the disabled and their families buy homes with affordable mortgages. The results are far greater than dollars can measure.

March 05, 2000|DIANE WEDNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For 13 years, Marta and Julian Velazquez hauled their disabled son up and down the 18 stairs that linked their tiny hillside apartment in East Los Angeles to the street below.

Strapped into his wheelchair, Octavio--who suffered a brain injury as a toddler--bounced and swayed as his parents negotiated the stairs twice a day to deliver him to school and appointments.

When night fell, Octavio, now 18, his two sisters, now 16 and 11, and his mother crammed into the unit's single bedroom to sleep, while his father and younger brother sacked out in the living room.

Marta Velazquez, a 42-year-old homemaker, and Julian Velazquez, 75, a retired furniture maker, can be forgiven, then, for bragging about their recently purchased Boyle Heights home, with its four spacious bedrooms, ample living room and big backyard.

"This is my palace," Marta said recently, as she laid out food for Octavio's 18th birthday party. "It took a lot of patience to get this house, but it's well worth it."

The Velazquezes were able to buy their $142,000 house thanks to HomeChoice, a nationwide program that offers affordable mortgages to the disabled and their families.

Since its inception four years ago, the program has helped 33 Southern California families purchase homes, with loans totaling about $2 million. Six more loans are in the pipeline.

"This program changes people's lives," said David Silva, executive director of Home Ownership Made Easy, or HOME, a nonprofit group that coordinates HomeChoice's work in California.

"Individuals with disabilities need the opportunity to participate in society, to flourish, and I've seen them do that when they own their own homes," Silva said. Culver City-based HOME, which provides services to the developmentally disabled, heads up a coalition of HomeChoice partners that includes banks, counseling centers, city and county agencies, regional centers and realty companies.

Each coalition member assists HomeChoice borrowers with a different phase of the purchasing process, from helping them qualify for a loan to installing wheelchair ramps on their front porches.

The program, which provides low down payments, flexible second-mortgage financing and step-by-step counseling, was created by Fannie Mae, the nation's largest provider of mortgage money.

HomeChoice provides home-buying opportunities to people with such disabilities as cerebral palsy, autism and mental retardation or to their families, if their care is administered at home.

There are about 45,000 developmentally disabled adults living independently or in assisted-living arrangements in Southern California, according to HOME's Silva. Many of the disabled are clients of the county's seven regional centers, which identify potential HomeChoice borrowers.

Marta Velazquez, who provides around-the-clock care for Octavio, heard about HomeChoice 18 months ago through a friend at her son's school. She contacted his social worker, who directed her to the Home Loan Counseling Center in Los Angeles, a HomeChoice coalition member.

Bankers, Counselors Explain Their Roles

After passing an initial credit check, Marta Velazquez attended a HomeChoice information session, where she met bankers and counselors who explained their roles in the program.

Next, the Velazquezes and several other potential borrowers attended a five-hour homeownership workshop at the counseling center. Then the couple began one-on-one instruction that addressed their particular needs.

"It takes a lot of patience, and there are lots of families who aren't ready," said Gloria Ancira, director of the Home Loan Counseling Center. "It often takes months, but we just keep planting the seeds, fertilizing them and watching them grow."

Finally, last January, the couple were ready to begin the loan application process, the most time-consuming step for most HomeChoice borrowers.

To qualify for the low monthly mortgage they sought, the Velazquezes had to come up with a $50,000 down payment. They had saved only $6,000 so, like many HomeChoice borrowers, they needed a major financial boost.

With the help of the HomeChoice coalition, they got a $5,000 Affordable Housing Program loan from the Federal Home Loan Bank. The loan is forgivable if the family remains in the house for at least 15 years.

The couple also got a $60,000 loan from the city Housing Department. About $40,000 went toward the down payment. Washington Mutual Bank, a HomeChoice partner, holds the $91,000 first mortgage.

The balance of the loan was used for home repairs, including a fresh coat of paint, new carpets and a special shower adaptation for Octavio. The loan does not have to be repaid until the couple sells the house.

Arreola's Realty in Los Angeles, a coalition member, helped the Velazquezes find their Boyle Heights house, which they moved into last August, 11 months after the process began. California Children Services of Los Angeles County, another coalition member, donated a wheelchair ramp for the front porch.

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