Thursday, December 11, 2008

D.C. resident LaShoun Christian’s dream of homeownership has always been about her and her son — that they have a place to call their own.

Her plan was to take advantage of the city’s Home Purchase Assistance Program. She completed the paperwork, conducted her own walk-through and scraped together the $2,500 down payment. But when the economic downturn forced the District to suspend the first-time buyer program, Miss Christian was left waiting at the closing table.

“It’s very frustrating. My son has been asking me, ‘Mom, what’s going on with the house?’ And I can’t answer him,” said Miss Christian, who was on the verge of a settlement date on a Benning Heights town house when she received a letter Nov. 25 from the city stating that all funds from the program have been put on hold until further notice.

“It’s disappointing, after paying all the bills and doing what I needed to do, now I have to go through this,” she said.

D.C. Council members said they will do whatever they can to help Miss Christian and as many as 100 others in the program, which provides up to $77,000 in down payment and closing-cost assistance for low- and moderate-income residents buying their first home.

Problems began in early November when the council — to reduce an estimated $131 million shortfall in the city’s fiscal 2009 budget — froze $11 million in the program’s $33 million budget. It was part of a nearly $50 million spending freeze on upcoming city projects to address the shortfall.

Then, the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development revised its budget and slashed $11 million from the program’s remaining $22 million.

Agency Director Leila Edmonds said the program was suspended because it could not function properly on the remaining $11 million. So the agency moved the money into similar programs and notified existing applicants that they would no longer be able to make due on contracts approved after Nov. 14.

On Nov. 20, council Chairman Vincent C. Gray, a Democrat, ordered an audit of the program’s finances, calling the agency’s cuts so soon in fiscal 2009 “absolutely ridiculous.”

The council also made efforts to pass emergency legislation to assist those such as Miss Christian.

However, council member Harry Thomas Jr. last week postponed the vote, saying the council needed time to review the audit and that the agency had promised that those in the program’s pipeline would receive the financial assistance.

“We had received word that applicants who had put money down, had boxes packed, were not going to get their loans,” Mr. Thomas, Ward 5 Democrat, said last week. “I have full confidence that all agencies involved with this program will move forward with current awards, so I am temporarily removing this legislation.”

He also vowed to reintroduce the bill “if the audit shows any shortfalls.”

Miss Christian said she has yet to be notified — by any city agency — about whether her contract will proceed with a closing date.

“I don’t know how long this will go on, and I’m paying interest on the down payment, so I’m very concerned,” she said.

A Thomas staffer said as many as 100 applicants are in situations similar to Miss Christian’s.

The problems also have hit those with approved contracts.

Lottena Wolters closed Nov. 15 on a home in the 4000 block of Polk Street Northeast, but has yet to move.

“It’s been very difficult because I gave a notice that I was going to move out of my apartment on the 15th, now the agency is stalling so I had to pay for the rest of my rent, and not only that, I was charged a late fee for that rent,” said Miss Wolters, 33.

James Pittman, chief legislative counsel for Mr. Thomas, said: “These are people who have put money out of their own pocket for down payments. And they are simply waiting for the DHCD to pay up their end.”

Still, Mr. Gray said, waiting until Tuesday is the right move.

“I believe postponing this legislation gives us an opportunity to review the audit, then we’ll all feel comfortable on taking the most appropriate measures possible,” he said.

Mr. Thomas commended Mr. Gray for ordering the audit.

“The course you’ve taken adds something to this,” he said.

Gray spokeswoman Doxie McCoy said last week that the audit was proceeding smoothly.

“The auditor will set a timetable next week for a thorough, but hopefully quick, examination as prospective homeowners are affected and waiting for a favorable resolution,” she said.

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