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Miami Herald - March 26, 2006

Program helps families own homes
A county program run by the Neighborhood Housing Services agency is helping four families get low-income housing at a time of soaring property costs.


Owning a home in Miami-Dade County is no longer just a pipe dream for Emilean Harrell.

Thanks to Neighborhood Housing Services and the agency's partners, the dream is becoming a reality.

''Every book on finance I've read says to stop renting,'' Harrell said. ``Renters get poorer and homeowners get richer. I am ready to stop throwing my money away on rent.''

Besides leaving behind a pile of rent receipts, Harrell and her 16-year-old daughter Monica Symonette are looking forward to leaving something else behind at the two-bedroom apartment when they move into their new 1,250-square-foot single-family home in August.

''I am getting my own bathroom, all to myself,'' Harrell said.

''So am I,'' added Monica, smiling.

But it has been a long road for Harrell.

''I guess it was mostly out of fear, not knowing what to do or how to go about getting a mortgage,'' she said.

``I think I have been renting for over 18 years, paying somebody else's mortgage for all those years.''

After reading about Neighborhood Housing Services in July 2003, Harrell took the first step towards home ownership: She called to sign up for an orientation meeting.

After that initial meeting, Harrell went through all 13 NHS steps, such as home buyer education, mortgage application and counselor's assessment, to complete the Homebuyers Flowchart to Success.

According to the NHS website, the agency provided Homebuyer Education classes for more than 600 families in 2005.

''These prospective homeowners learned skills needed to shop for, finance and insure a home,'' the website says, adding that 127 families ``went on to purchase a home and are now building assets on their way to a better future.''

As part of Miami-Dade County's Infill Housing Initiative, Neighborhood Housing Services broke ground in late February on four lots, including Harrell's $150,000 three-bedroom, two-bath home in West Little River, and a similar home for Shawntia Kirkland and her mother, Addie.

Infill Housing is a strategy to achieve affordable housing by revitalizing neighborhoods and expanding home ownership opportunities in urban areas.

''The main effort of the program is devoted to recycling abandoned lots and turning community eyesores into healthy neighborhoods, therefore generating a positive property tax base,'' the county's website says. ``The Initiative serves as a catalyst for servicing the County's overwhelming demand to create affordable housing and homeownership opportunities for low and moderate-income families.''

Juan Garcia, assistant director of the Miami-Dade Housing Development Agency, said a variety of subsidies and programs, according to family size and income levels, are available to prospective home buyers.

''Our subsidies range from $30,000 to $80,000 and subsidized interest rate from zero to three percent for low-income applicants, and four to six percent for moderate income applicants,'' Garcia wrote in an e-mail to The Miami Herald.