January 18, 2009 in City

Coalition delivers housing

New nonprofit helps working-class families
By Alison Boggs I Staff writer
 
Kathy Plonka photo

Chris and Tiffany Dietzman check out the site for their new home in Coeur d’Alene on Thursday. The Dietzmans were able to get some help to buy their first home through the North Idaho Housing Coalition.
(Full-size photo)

For more information

Contact Lori Isenberg of the North Idaho Housing Coalition at (208) 665-9922 or send e-mail to lori@northidahohousing.org. Or visit the coalition online at www.northidahohousing.org.

None of the homes Chris and Tiffany Dietzman could afford fit their vision of a place they would want to start a family.

One home on the West Plains had a view of the jail. Another, in Spokane Valley, had its kitchen in the basement. And the neighborhood of a third was just plain scary.

Then their banker told them about a new North Idaho nonprofit agency organized to help working-class people buy homes.

Now the couple plan to move into a new home in Coeur d’Alene this spring. Their three-bedroom, two-bathroom rancher will be built on a lot big enough for a yard and, one day, a shop, Chris Dietzman said with a grin.

“It provides us opportunities that we wouldn’t have had otherwise,” said the 27-year-old, who installs home sprinkler systems for fire protection. Tiffany Dietzman, 21, works as a customer service representative for a bank. The couple have been married six months.

The Dietzmans are among the first clients of a relatively new nonprofit agency created to help the working class become homeowners.

The North Idaho Housing Coalition was born of a series of workshops held in Kootenai County in summer 2007. More than 100 people met to hash out possible solutions to the county’s housing challenges, which had grown dramatically as home prices spiked.

They decided a nonprofit agency was needed to direct the effort, said Lori Isenberg, who became executive director of the housing coalition. The group was intent on not duplicating services that already existed, so it focused on work force housing.

Steve White, president of Hayden-based Copper Basin Construction, said the problem of affordable work force housing had to be addressed.

“We can’t just step back and say, ‘It’ll take care of itself,’ ” said White, whose company has contributed $80,000 to the effort. “We won’t be able to keep the good police officers, the good teachers, the good firefighters.”

Isenberg said working-class people frequently make too much to qualify for low-income loan programs but not enough to be able to buy a home without assistance. Since 2001, she said, home prices in Kootenai County have risen 88 percent, while wages have only increased 11 percent.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that doesn’t work,” Isenberg said. “What can we do to help those people? We need to think of new ways. We’ve got to do more.”

To bridge that gap, the coalition solicits donations from the business community, then uses that pool of money to help people with their financing. The money is supplied through an Idaho Housing Finance Association foundation in the form of a “soft” second mortgage – a no-interest loan.

The family can either pay back that second mortgage before they sell the house or return the contribution to the nonprofit at the time of sale with a corresponding share of value gained. Back in the nonprofit’s coffers, the money is available to help another family.

The program requires participants to put down at least $1,000 and to take a homebuyer education class. In a new twist, the program also requires homebuyers to contribute some form of community service, such as working in a food bank or volunteering in a school. Called “deeds of distinction,” the tasks are selected by the homeowners in conjunction with the coalition.

The Dietzmans plan to volunteer for Habitat for Humanity.

“We’re willing to do anything,” Chris Dietzman said.

The housing coalition sends volunteers into workplaces – including the school districts, North Idaho College and call centers – to give employees information on how they can overcome obstacles to home ownership. Some people just don’t realize they would qualify to purchase a home, said Linda Davis, who works with the housing coalition. Others are working to overcome bad credit or struggling to save a down payment.

The first two homes purchased through the program should close within the next few months and a dozen more are in the works. Copper Basin has donated the bulk of the seed money – but four other homebuilders are planning to get involved and smaller donations have come in from other businesses, Isenberg said.

Panhandle State Bank, Mountain West Bank and North Idaho Title, for example, all have donated $10,000 to the coalition. U.S. Bancorp and the city of Hayden have put in $2,500 apiece, Isenberg said.

The benefit to businesses, aside from supporting homeownership in their community, is the ability to designate how their contribution is used.

“If Copper Basin puts money in, they can say, ‘This is to buy a Copper Basin home.’ It’s a good thing for the community, but it’s also good for them. They’re selling houses,” Isenberg said. “Our goal is to have it not be taxpayer-funded. We’re asking businesses to partner with us in ways that are also going to be good for their businesses.”

The housing coalition also has started a land trust and is seeking donations of surplus land from various municipalities, including cities, highway districts and school districts, Isenberg said. Any parcels donated would remain part of the trust and be leased to homeowners for “practically nothing,” Isenberg said, while the homes built on that property would be privately owned. The homeowners would build less equity but would still own their homes.

Sitting on the board of directors for the newly formed nonprofit are representatives from banks, the cities of Hayden and Coeur d’Alene, Kootenai County and fellow nonprofits Habitat for Humanity and St. Vincent de Paul, both of which also provide housing to homeless and low-income people.

“Coeur d’Alene is an amazing place to live, but it needs to be an amazing place to live for everyone,” said Jeff Conroy, executive director of St. Vincent de Paul. The housing coalition “is putting a spotlight on the problem.”

Contact Alison Boggs at (208) 765-7132 or alisonb@spokesman.com.


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