St. Joseph's/Candler employees realize dream of home ownership

June 1, 2018

Health system, city, banks provide down payment aid


Oct. 28, 2015, is a date Sarah Burns says she will remember for the rest of her life:

She closed on the purchase of a brand new, three-bedroom, two-bathroom house in southeastern Savannah, Ga., to become a first-time homeowner at age 50. She did so with guidance and financial assistance through a home ownership program for low- to moderate-income employees offered by St. Joseph's/Candler Health System. She was the first employee to complete the program and buy a home.

Sarah Burns purchased her Savannah, Ga., home with the help of a program from her employer, St. Joseph's/Candler Health System of Savannah, Ga.
Photo courtesy of St. Joseph's/Candler

Though Burns has worked full-time all her adult life, she's never made much money. Her paycheck as unit clerk at St. Joseph's Hospital gets sliced thin; and, especially after her divorce, there often was not enough left over after necessities to save for a down payment. She had past due debts on her credit report. Both of her adult children rely or have relied to some extent on Burns' paycheck too. Her daughter lives with her. Her son and his daughter only recently moved out.

To qualify for a mortgage, Burns needed to repair her credit history, come up with a realistic household budget and put together a down payment. The home-ownership program gave her the tools to do all that; her dream of homeownership kept her on task.

Launched in 2015 in partnership with the City of Savannah, the program provides qualifying nonmanagement employees with financial education and counseling, and down payment assistance. It guides borrowers toward lower-cost loans.

Burns says St. Joseph's/Candler's homeownership program shows employees the health system "really cares about us and wants us to prosper."

St. Joseph's/Candler employee Vera Williams bought her house with assistance from the health system's program.
Photo courtesy of St. Joseph's/Candler

Housing and health status
The Catholic St. Joseph's Hospital and the Methodist Candler Hospital make up the St. Joseph's/Candler system. The hospitals' joint 2016 community health needs assessment flags housing as a concern in their home county, Chatham County, Ga.

The assessment set out the percentage of households with a problem in at least one of four areas: overcrowding, high housing costs, lack of kitchen or lack of plumbing facilities. The assessment says 19.4 percent of Chatham County households have at least one of these problems, compared to a 14 percent median for that measure in all U.S. counties. Housing concerns were voiced by residents who participated in neighborhood forums, focus groups and community meetings connected with the assessment report.

The assessment says "safe and affordable housing is an essential component of healthy communities, and the effects of housing problems are widespread. Residents who do not have a kitchen in their home are more likely to depend on unhealthy convenience foods, and a lack of plumbing facilities increases the risk of infectious disease." The assessment says "research has found that young children who live in crowded housing conditions are at increased risk of food insecurity, which may impede their academic performance.

"In areas where housing costs are high," the assessment says, "low-income residents may be forced into substandard living conditions with an increased exposure to mold and mildew growth, pest infestation, and lead or other environmental hazards."

Close to home
St. Joseph's/Candler employees are not immune from such concerns, and when the City of Savannah invited the health system to consider replicating the successful housing ownership program it offered to city employees, the hospital was very interested, says Steve Pound, vice president of human resources for St. Joseph's/Candler.

The Sisters of Mercy who founded and sponsor St. Joseph's Hospital and maintain an active presence on campus advocated for the homeownership promotion program, Pound says.

Paul P. Hinchey, president and chief executive of St. Joseph's/Candler, said, "There are a lot of people who can handle making a monthly mortgage payment. It's the down payment that is the barrier to homeownership. We wanted to create this program to remove that barrier for our co-workers and help them find a safe place for their families."

Since 2011, the City of Savannah has been offering a financial education and down payment assistance program to low-income employees. About 80 city employees have bought houses using the education and financial resources available through the program. The city structured the program to encourage revitalization of selected neighborhoods.

The health system worked with the city to extend components of the city program to health system employees, says Pound.

To participate in the St. Joseph's/Candler homeownership program, employees must work for the health system for at least a year, logging on average a minimum of 64 hours per two-week pay period. Among other parameters, an applicant's income cannot exceed 80 percent of the area's median income adjusted for household size.

The city processes applications, and a health system committee confirms which employees are eligible to participate. Participants connect with financial counselors and take financial education classes hosted by the city to learn how to follow a household budget, improve a credit score, and establish and stick to a savings plan. Employees also get help from the city with home purchase paperwork and with connecting with lenders, realtors and closing agents.

Deborah Caoeng does some yardwork at home. A program from her employer, St. Joseph's/Candler Health System of Savannah, Ga., provided resources for buying the home.
Photo courtesy of St. Joseph's/Candler

Employees who complete the classes and counseling and qualify for a traditional loan with a lender who is partnering in the program are eligible for up to tens of thousands of dollars of down payment aid.

The program involves layers of financial aid for down payments as well as low- and no-interest loans. St. Joseph's/Candler provides $3,000 per employee in the form of a no-interest loan that is forgiven if the employee stays with the health system for three years and lives in the home that entire time. Employees also can qualify for thousands of dollars in first mortgage financing in the form of down payment grants from local banks participating as partners in the program as well as tens of thousands of dollars in 0 percent interest loans through the City of Savannah's Dream Maker program.

Home purchasers may get additional government grant dollars or access to low-rate loan programs for buying an energy-efficient home.

According to Pound, 118 St. Joseph's/Candler employees have taken part or are currently taking part in the homeownership program. Seventeen have completed the process and purchased homes which have cost between about $120,000 and $140,000. Dozens of others are in various stages of taking classes, or completing the arduous task of repairing poor credit histories. More than a dozen employees withdrew from the program without completing it.

Paying dividends
Pound says he expects that the program will improve employee loyalty, retention and well-being, while also helping to revitalize Savannah. He says such outcomes would be in line with St. Joseph's/Candler's focus on promoting wellness. "We're interested in helping our co-workers achieve their life goals," he says.

Burns says before qualifying for a home loan, she had to clear debts and write letters to credit monitoring bureaus to have the debts removed from her credit report. The effort was worth it. "God made a way for me, and I went for it. I have a home, and it makes me feel on top the world," Burns says.

"This is for my children," she says of the home. "I want to keep it in the family."



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