published Sunday, April 29th, 2012

Credit union homebuyers program helping record numbers but needs more money

Amy Kerin shows off a low closet, one of the features of her house designed to accommodate her wheelchair use.
Amy Kerin shows off a low closet, one of the features of her house designed to accommodate her wheelchair use.
Photo by Dan Henry.

IF YOU GO


• What: Singer Joan Faulkner, comedian Jonathan Slocumb

• When: 6 p.m. May 27

• Where: Tivoli Theatre, 709 Broad St.

• Cost: $35, call for tickets at 423-642-8497

• Information: Call Church Koinonia Federal Credit Union, 423-629-5400.

At first almost nobody believed there was a program that would help low- to moderate-income residents make a down payment on a home by giving $2 for every $1 saved.

Four years later, Koinonia's Hope Chest has helped more than a dozen people purchase homes. And it helped 2007 Brainerd High School graduate and now registered nurse Jesse Oliver pay for nursing school.

"Some people could not see or believe that they could be homeowners. It was a matter of convincing people," said Ann Jones Pierre, chief executive officer and president of the Church Koinonia Federal Credit Union, which manages the Hope Chest.

But now credit union officials must raise more money to help more people.

The program had only six applicants when the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services funded it with a $120,000 grant in 2009, but now it's serving 25. In the past two years, however, it received another 40 applications for help, the most since it started, but it has no money.

The $120,000 from the Health and Human Services Department has been used to match participants' savings and, while the program can help the 25 already signed up, there is no money for the 40 other applicants, Pierre said.

To help raise funds, jazz, gospel and blues singer Joan Faulkner will be featured in concert on May 27 at the Tivoli Theatre. The goal is to raise $30,000 so Church Koinonia will have more money on hand when it applies for a matching federal grant in June.

A resident who receives the federal earned income tax credit likely meets income requirements for the Hope Chest program, credit union officials said. To qualify, a single person with three or more children may earn up to $43,998 a year while a married couple with three children may make up to $49,078. A single person with one child may make up to $36,052.

Habitat for Humanity partners with Koinonia's Hope Chest to help clients who have qualified for a home save money for the down payment.

Those who want to participate must open an account at the credit union, said Rebecca Cowan, a Koinonia assistant who helps those who want to be in the program. Participants have up to three years to save and, for every dollar a member saves in the Hope Chest, the credit union matches it with $2, up to a maximum of $5,000. A person can save up to $7,500 in the program, she said.

About $2,100 of that is used to pay closing costs on a Habitat home and any money left over may be used by the homeowner to make improvements such as putting a fence around the home, said Dawn Hjelseth, Habitat's director of volunteers.

"This is a great way for partner families to save for their house," Hjelseth said. "You won't find a two-to-one return rate anywhere right now."

Amy Kerin said the Hope Chest program helped her save the money she needed to purchase a home custom-built for her. She has spina bifida and spends nearly all of her time in a wheelchair.

After 15 years of struggling to live in apartments where she could not reach the cabinets, she asked Habitat to build a home where she wouldn't be in danger of pouring hot liquids on herself because the countertop would be low enough for her to reach and see what she was doing.

She knew her income would qualify, and she went to the Koinonia Hope Chest to help her get the $2,100 Habitat requires for closing. She moved into her East Chattanooga home in December 2011.

"For someone like me with very little income, saving $2,100 was hard to do," said Kerin. "But I was determined. I'm going to own my own home. I love my house."

about Yolanda Putman...

Yolanda Putman has been a reporter at the Times Free Press for 11 years. She covers housing and previously covered education and crime. Yolanda is a Chattanooga native who has a master’s degree in communication from the University of Tennessee and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Alabama State University. She previously worked at the Lima (Ohio) News. She enjoys running, reading and writing and is the mother of one son, Tyreese. She has also ...

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