- Associated Press - Saturday, February 23, 2019

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Axel Sinda and his wife Noella Disasi figured it would be years before they could afford to buy a house.

The couple, who emigrated from the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2014, had a plan. They would make money so Sinda could go to college and get a better job. Then they would make more money so they could buy a house big enough for a family of nine.

But a year ago, the family moved into a brick home in central Lincoln through the assistance of a local program that helps people learn to save money for important big ticket items and then adds to their savings, the Lincoln Journal Star reported.

It was a happy day when the couple got the key to their new home, a three-bedroom ranch. Since then, they have added two bedrooms in the basement so there is plenty of room for their seven children, ages 3 to 18.

Sometimes when you come in here you cannot believe there are that many people living in the house because everyone has their own space, said Disasi.

The couple were part of a long-standing program offered through the Community Action Partnership of Lancaster and Saunders Counties that has helped low- and moderate-income people save by offering financial coaching, classes and up to $4,000 in additional money for approved purchases.

Now that program has been expanded. A three-year $525,541 grant from an anonymous donor will allow an estimated 90 people to participate, saving money for homes, education, starting a business or buying a reliable car.

Here’s how the Free to Save-Matched Savings program works: The participants save for at least six months. One thousand dollars in savings or more is matched by $4,000 from the program for an approved purchase, explained Andrew Ritta, finance well-being administrator for Community Action.

The savings program is unique in Lincoln, in existence for 16 years using federal funds leveraged by donations. That program was called the Individual Development Accounts (IDA).

With the loss of federal funds, it was headed for extinction by 2020, said Vi See, executive director of Community Action Partnership.

People saving through the older program could use the money for education, to start a business or buy a house. And almost half the previous participants purchased a home.

The new program will allow people to also use the savings for a vehicle. And Ritta expects saving for a vehicle will be popular since having reliable transportation is a huge need for having a job.

This will be available to families who need a vehicle for work or school and who don’t have a vehicle or have an old, unreliable vehicle at the end of its useful life, said Ritta.

This is one of the programs that really matches the Community Action mission to move people to economic stability, said See. This savings program can make a difference, she said.

People have earned college degrees. People who never dreamed they would own their own home have saved for the down payment. Some of the groceries and restaurants along 27th Street were started by refugees using this program.

“This is a happy program,” See said.

Home buying is a big thing in his home country and here in the United States, said Sinda.

“If you have your own house it is like you are free. If I want to fix my house I can. No one can tell us we have to move.”

The couple have moved on with their long-term dream. Sinda is currently in school and working part time, hoping to finish a two-year program at Southeast Community College and maybe continue on at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Disasi is working at a local hotel, and both continue to improve their English skills through classes.

Like many habits, it takes time and repetition to learn how to save, said See.

Participants “learn to pay themselves first,” she said. “You make savings a first priority, not what you have left over.”

That is what you are supposed to do, but it is more difficult with a limited income, she said. People have cash flow problems. They don’t have a cushion, so when an emergency comes up saving money ends.

Some people have a negative bank history and can’t establish a bank account.

An individual case manager helps with budgeting issues, perhaps even the bank and getting the individual a second chance, See said.

Sinda and Disasi worked with their case manager on a budget, so they could save some out of their incomes.

They also took a class for people interested in buying a home through NeighborWorks, so they understood the finances involved and the responsibilities of home ownership.

The class, Sinda said, taught them how to choose a home “that isn’t so bad we can’t fix it,” and how to go about buying a home.

The program is available to people who earn 200 percent of the federal poverty or less (that’s $33,820 for a family of two and $51,500 for a family of four) and have a net worth of less than $10,000.


Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, http://www.journalstar.com

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