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Operating statewide for the past 20 years, a nonprofit agency designed to assist potential and current West Virginia homeowners alike has established a Kanawha County “home base” of sorts recently to further its mission.

The CommunityWorks in West Virginia Home Ownership Center opened on Dec. 15 on Crede Drive in Big Chimney, off U.S. 119. The nonprofit bills itself as a “one-stop shop” to help people find homes they can afford. CommunityWorks in West Virginia’s range of services includes:

n financial literacy classes

n credit counseling

n homebuyer education classes

n housing counseling

n loans to purchase a home and for down payment and closing cost assistance

n opportunities to upgrade current homes with rehabilitation loans

n foreclosure prevention assistance

“This area has needed this [Home Ownership Center] for years, but we haven’t had the money until now to do it,” CWWV acting director Mary Skeens said.

And although it’s marking its 20th year of service in 2021, the agency hasn’t been as widely known — or utilized — as its proponents have hoped, Skeens added.

“CommunityWorks is a membership organization, in that we have 27 other nonprofits around West Virginia that we work with,” she explained. “We’re also a charter member of NeighborWorks America. We receive funding from them, support money and loan capital. And we’re a certified CDFI (Community Development Financial Institution) with the Department of Treasury, which means that we meet all of the requirements of their program. We’re, specifically, an Affordable Housing CDFI, one of six in West Virginia.”

Nonprofit partners around the state for rental development funding the CWWV can provide include, among others, the Woodlands Development Group in Elkins and the Coalfield Development Corporation, a Wayne County organization that serves an eight-county area of Southern West Virginia.

“They can do single-family units also, but right now, that’s not where the market is for the low-income families we serve,” Skeens said. “We need affordable rental units so bad.

“CommunityWorks has always been sort of a driving force in West Virginia for affordable housing,” said Skeens, who has been affiliated with CWWV since 2007. “We work closely with the West Virginia Housing Development Fund; our members apply for their funding through their organization.

“Our primary function is to provide loans to families to purchase a house and loans that will allow them to rehab a house; that will come out of this office now,” she said.

Skeens said lending options are available through the CWWV, or applicants can go through a local bank. “At that point, we’ve got their credit cleared up so much that they are really a good client.”

She said CWWV has worked extensively with Huntington Bank, Truist, Wells Fargo and other state and national lending institutions to facilitate home loans for buyers. “And if that family needs down payment or closing costs and hasn’t built that up yet, we will step in and do a closing cost and down payment assistance loan with them.”

Home rehab

Skeens said the CWWV can also fund up to $15,000 for individual home rehabilitation projects.

“If they just need to do a porch, if it’s fallen in or needs to be handicap accessible, then we will finance that. We do funding for septic systems, bathrooms and roofs. We have done a lot of roofs.

“We make that loan to where they can afford it. Predatory loans are illegal and we don’t do them. We determine what they can afford and we see how many years they can pay it off in. If they can pay it off in 10 years, then that’s what we’ll arrange the term of the loan as. We’re very careful to not create a hardship,” she said.

Skeens added that her current role as director is a temporary one, having helped bring the new Homeownership Center to bricks-and-mortar fruition, and the CWWV may launch a search for a new director in coming weeks.

With the emergence of COVID-19 last year, she said NeighborWorks America representatives contacted her to inquire about responding to clients’ needs during the strictures imposed by the pandemic.

“I said the one thing we’ve needed for several years is a housing counselor,” she recounted. “The guy I work with said, ‘Why don’t you just get a homeownership center and it’ll last forever?’”

The new facility was constructed and completed in 45 days, in spite of coronavirus-related delays.

Crossing the threshold into a household

As the CWWV housing counselor, Lakiesha Lloyd is usually the first point of contact for individuals and couples seeking the agency’s assistance in buying a home.

“My job is to counsel, one on one, with clients who call in who may not be quite ready to purchase a home, that are needing help with budgeting, building a savings account, building credit, things like that,” she explained.

Lloyd also leads education classes for her clients. “I teach financial literacy classes, to go over how to build savings, how to build up your checking account, things like that — basic things that we think we know and we think we know how to handle, but some people need a little extra help there.”

Lloyd said one of the initial forms she sends to applicants poses the question “What do you feel are some of your biggest obstacles that are keeping you from owning a home?” She bases her counseling on the answers.

“Right now, during the current COVID-19 situation, I’m doing everything virtually. They get a chance to see me. It keeps that personal touch.”

The classes are also virtual. Lloyd uses Zoom, so even if people do not have internet access or a computer at home, they can download the app on their phone.

“We’ll look at everything, the whole financial situation you’re in and then we’ll work together,” Lloyd said. “I like to say it’s a team effort. That’s why I coined that we’re a ‘one-stop shop’ — literally, you don’t have to go out and then come back to other people. We do everything in house from the very beginning, working with you to get yourself together, to be able to buy the house.”

The qualifying process

Right across the hall from Lloyd’s office, Denise A. Cosby works as the CWWV’s mortgage loan originator, a financial sherpa of sorts. She first determines if applicants fit within the agency’s income-level guidelines.

She will supply a prequalification packet to make that determination, requesting annual gross household income and other data to ascertain their area median income. “Our target is 80%-or-less AMI. That’s moderate to low-income for West Virginia,” Cosby explained.

The only upfront fee is $32 for permission to obtain the applicant’s credit report, she added.

“Once I get that back and pull their credit report, I will evaluate their credit worthiness, calculate their debt-to-income ratio as it stands on the credit report and estimate a new home payment and then get back to the borrower,” Cosby said.

She said the credit report has generally been the biggest obstacle for potential new homeowners. “That’s why we help them with their credit and financial literacy. When I evaluate an individual, I don’t just look at the credit report and, based on what I see, say no. I will reach out to borrowers, because oftentimes I’ve found a lot of times people don’t even know what’s on their credit report.”

The mortgage loan process begins after a successful evaluation. Low-interest, fixed-rate loans can be scaled for 30 years or less for owner-occupied property in West Virginia, she said.

Funding is made on a first-come, first-served basis, Cosby said. “We’re not a bank. We don’t sell our loans to generate more money. If we have the funding, we may be able to help you, but if we’ve run out of money, we’ll have to call you when we have the next round of funding.”

Finding out more

In the interest of client and staff safety during ongoing COVID-19 conditions, Zoom meetings can be arranged with Home Ownership Center representatives on an appointment basis for consultations, classes and other communications.

For more information about the Home Ownership Center and its services, contact Denise Cosby at 681-265-1656 or dcosby @communityworkswv.org.

The website address is communityworkswv.org.