Judith Blankenship received $2 from Luzerne County for each dollar she put in savings toward a down payment and closing costs to buy her first home.
In addition to meeting income guidelines, Blankenship and other participants in the county’s Growing Homeowners Initiative Program must attend at least three workshops preparing them for home ownership and agree to own and live in their property for at least five years.
Blankenship ended up receiving $3,712 in matching funds from the county Community Development Office when she purchased a house on Carey Avenue in Wilkes-Barre for $65,000 last month.
A total 314 property owners have participated since the program was launched here at the end of 2003, but county officials have repeatedly urged more citizens to take advantage of the opportunity to receive free government funding.
The reason: It’s a rare example of a program in which available funding exceeds the demand.
The pot of funding that covers the matches — called the Housing Trust Fund — contains $2.2 million and continues to be replenished with a $13 fee collected each time a mortgage or deed is recorded in the county, said county Community Development Director Andrew Reilly.
“This money is out there, and we want people to know it’s available,” Reilly said.
A mother of three with two sons still living at home, Blankenship said she appreciated the assistance. The human services worker said her three-bedroom property is more spacious than the apartments her family has squeezed into over the years, and she has a sense of pride and stability owning her own place.
“It’s terrific. I’m real excited. It’s nice to be in something that’s ours,” she said as one of her school-aged sons nodded in agreement.
An average 30 property owners have participated in the Growing Homeowners Initiative annually since a spike of 51 in 2009, Reilly said.
Income guidelines for participants in the first-time home buyers program are higher than many might expect, Reilly said.
A single person making up to $40,750 per year is eligible. The maximum household income for a family of four is $58,200, rising to $67,500 for a family of six, according to information prepared by the Housing Development Corporation, which administers the program for the county Community Development Office.
Homes purchased with the county funding must be located in the county, and applicants must be permanent residents of the county for at least one year to be eligible.
The county also may provide rehabilitation funding to participants for the removal of lead-based paint hazards or repairs required by local building codes. The income qualifications are lower for rehabilitation funding, ranging from $32,600 for a single person to $54,000 for a family of six.
The Housing Trust Fund cannot be tapped to help the county’s strapped general fund operating budget because the money must be spent on affordable housing in compliance with state law, Reilly said.
When the trust fund grew to $2.8 million in 2009, prior commissioners agreed to remove $1 million to help fund the Courtright Housing Development on former blighted property in Wilkes-Barre, which was determined to be an eligible use of the money.
County officials also have provided trust fund money to the Wyoming Valley Habitat for Humanity to help rehabilitate properties.
At least 10 other first-time home buyers received matching funds through the initiative this year, according to contracts posted on county Manager Robert Lawton’s section of the county website, www.luzernecounty.org.
The dollar amounts provided by the county, along with the location of properties they purchased: Matthew Savitski, $7,500, East Newport Street, Hanover Township; Cruz Blanco Suarez, $7,500, Muir Avenue, Hazleton (also $9,450 for rehabilitation work); Donna Tillman, $7,500, North Meade Street, Wilkes-Barre; Megan Tribendis, $6,609, East Center Hill Road, Dallas Township; Deborah Ruth Dundore, $7,500, Wagner Lane, Plymouth; Jean McLaughlin, $7,500, East Walnut Street, Hazleton; Shannon Hollock, $5,829, Richmont Avenue, Wilkes-Barre; Jolynn Frie, $7,471, North Main Street, Wilkes-Barre; Salvatore Meli, $7,500, Freed Street, Sugar Notch (also $10,900 for rehabilitation work); and Christina Miller, $7,500, Baltimore Avenue, West Pittston.