Pittsburgh’s housing authority helps families buy homes. Its homeownership program, explained.

The Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh offers financial help to qualified first-time homebuyers. (Ryan Loew/PublicSource)

In Pittsburgh, finding affordable housing can be difficult, whether you seek a room to rent or a place of your own. Owning your property can have substantial financial benefits — such as gaining equity through mortgage principal payments and tax deductions on interest payments. But saving enough money to cover the substantial upfront costs of buying a home is no small feat.

According to Zillow, the average price of a home in Pittsburgh is $150,500, and buyers must generally pay several thousand dollars in closing costs at the time of purchase — typically, out of pocket.

To ease cost burdens, the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh [HACP] created a Homeownership Program in 2004. HACP offers eligible low- and moderate-income households up to $8,000 in assistance toward closing costs and up to $52,000 in assistance through a second mortgage with no monthly payments. The mortgage can be forgiven entirely if the homeowner lives in the home for 10 years and stays in good standing with their primary loan payments. Participants can also get help from credit counselors and financial literacy classes through the program.

Especially for minority and female heads of households, “homeownership is key to the economic development in all communities,” said Richard Morris, housing director at the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh.

The Urban League provides credit assistance through the program. In Morris’ view, the more permanent nature of homeowners makes them “more likely to invest in the fabric of the community,” compared to renters who may stay for shorter periods.

But what does the program cost, and who is it serving?

HACP’s budget for the homeownership program this year is $1 million, according to an email from communications manager Chuck Rohrer. Funding comes from the federal government’s Housing Choice Voucher Program.

Program costs have steadily increased from $94,905 in 2014 to $457,020 in 2018, according to Rohrer. The costs vary based on the amount granted to homebuyers for closing costs and down payment assistance and reimbursements.

Of the 102 households who applied for the program and received eligibility letters between 2016 and 2018, 47 completed a home purchase using financial assistance from HACP.

But numbers fluctuate. In 2014, the program helped four households purchase homes. In 2018, the program assisted 21 families in purchasing homes. HACP’s goal for 2019 is to help 30 families buy homes, HACP Executive Director Caster Binion said.

HACP could not say how many households in Pittsburgh could qualify for the program according to their income levels. But, according to Rohrer, 5,355 households use HACP’s Housing Choice Voucher program and 2,590 use the Low-Income Public Housing Program. Only households that fit income requirements for these programs — even if they don’t participate in them — qualify for financial assistance through the homebuyer program, so long as they are first-time buyers.

The program has aided purchases in neighborhoods across Pittsburgh, including Hazelwood, Carrick, the Hill District, Sheraden, Homewood, Lincoln Place and Crafton Heights. From 2016 through 2018, participants ranged in age from 24 to 64. HACP did not share percentages on the demographics of participants.

HACP’s primary goal is to provide affordable housing through its own programs. While assisting homebuyers is secondary, “we feel it is a good mission,” Binion said.

To explain how the program works, PublicSource broke down the costs and process and put together this step-by-step resource.

Who is eligible?

You’re eligible if you answer yes to all the questions below (with a couple caveats):

  • Do you currently live in public housing through HACP or use the Housing Choice Voucher program (also known as Section 8)? If not, you can still qualify if you’re eligible to receive housing assistance from HACP; this varies based on your household size and income.
  • Does one adult in the household work full time and earn at least $17,000 annually? (A full-time job is not required if a head of household is elderly — 62 years old or older — or has a disability, but they must still have an annual income of at least $17,000.)
  • Is this your first home purchase?
  • Are you buying inside Pittsburgh city limits?

If you’re a family of four, your income must be below $60,800 to be eligible for HACP assistance (income limits vary based on family size). However, you’re still able to get guidance on purchasing a home, according to program coordinator Deanna Vaughn.

“There’s a lot of people who contact us who are not within our income guidelines,” Vaughn said, “but we still guide them through the purchasing process. We just can’t financially assist them.”

Vaughn said most program participants make less than 50 percent of the area median income [AMI], which is a federal figure estimating the average income for a family in the area. For a family of four, 50 percent of AMI in Pittsburgh is equivalent to annual income of $38,000.

According to Rohrer, participants normally buy a home “within a few months” of receiving mortgage pre-approval. Participants can only buy single-family homes and cannot rent them out.

How does it work?

Below are the eight steps participants in the HACP Homeownership program generally go through to buy a home. According to Vaughn, many participants enter the program at different points depending on their financial status. For instance, if one’s finances and credit meet the minimum standards of the program upon entry, that person may not be required to attend financial literacy classes and credit counseling.

  1. Financial literacy:
    1. For most to use the program, they’ll first need to enroll in a free eight-hour education class organized through a program by the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh, called “Operation HOME.” The class focuses on financial literacy, budgeting and credit restoration for first-time homebuyers with low and moderate incomes.
    2. “Before you can reach pre-approval and select a realtor, you have to take all of these steps to put yourself in position to open that door,” Morris said. “It requires you to work the program until you reach the point where you can present yourself as ready for a bank to make a decision for loaning you some money.”
    3. After finishing, graduates are given a certificate for eligibility to HACP’s Homeownership Program. To enroll, contact the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh at 412-227-4161 or HIntake@ulpgh.org.
  2. Checking and boosting credit:
    1. Next, an Urban League credit counselor obtains a participant’s financial credit score to aid in a discussion about the person’s finances. If the credit score is below 620, the Urban League can assist in improving credit. For example, the counselor could help in creating individualized budget plans and establishing savings accounts.
    2. According to Morris, having good credit before buying a home is key.“The credit score unlocks the door to financial security,” Morris said. “It allows for the person to be charged cheaper interest rates. It allows for people to have better financial options. It allows for people to be competitive or think competitively about the financial choices that they make.”
  3. Mortgage pre-approval:
    1. Once finances are in order, HACP refers participants to a local bank lender for mortgage pre-approval. Participants still have to complete a pre-approval application to determine eligibility before the bank provides a formal letter explaining how much they’re willing to loan. The bank will also provide an estimate of closing costs, which will impact how much financial assistance HACP provides to each participant.
  4. Submit materials:
    1. After one obtains a homebuyer education certificate, mortgage pre-approval letter and closing cost estimate, the paperwork should be sent here:
      1. HACP Homeownership Program
        200 Ross Street, 6th Floor
        Pittsburgh, PA 15219-2068
    2. If not already living in HACP housing or using a Section 8 voucher, the applicant will also need to contact HACP’s Occupancy Department at 412-456-5030 or occupancy@hacp.org to get a letter of homeownership eligibility.
  5. HACP decides the level of assistance:
    1. The preliminary work is almost done. HACP will next provide a homeownership program eligibility letter, which will explain the estimated financial assistance it will grant from a possible $8,000 for closing costs and $52,000 in a soft second mortgage. The second mortgage is a deferred loan with no monthly payments. The loan is forgivable, which means the homeowner isn’t expected to repay the mortgage if they abide by certain provisions. HACP requires residents to live in the home for at least 10 years for the soft second mortgage to be forgiven.
  6. Finding a home:
    1. This is the point where program participants shop for a home. Participants can only purchase a single-family home and cannot lease the property after purchase.
    2. Once a participant finds the right place, HACP needs a sales contract and closing cost estimate before an offer is made. Staff from the homeownership program will review the offer and provide an approval letter for the selected property.
  7. Making an offer:
    1. If the seller accepts the offer, the buyer has 10 days to complete a home inspection with an independent professional (a service reimbursed by HACP) and meet with the lender to complete a mortgage application.
  8. Closing time:
    1. At the time of the closing, the buyer will be required to pay any city, county and school taxes that must be prepaid and at least 1 percent of the cost of the home out of pocket. Closing cost assistance can be used to pay for the down payment and closing costs but cannot be used for prepaid taxes or homeowners insurance. Prepaid taxes in Pittsburgh include a 1 percent state tax, 2.5 percent city tax, one percent city tax and 4.5 percent realty transfer tax.

For more information on eligibility, requirements and enrollment, visit HACP’s website. You can also call their office at at 412-456-5000, ext. 2301.

Hannah Schneider is an editorial intern for PublicSource. She can be reached at hannah@publicsource.org.

This story was fact-checked by Matt Maielli.

Developing Pittsburgh has been made possible with funding from The Heinz Endowments.

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