Securing Affordable Homes in Flagstaff
Take the case of Devonna McLaughlin, the executive director of BOTHANDS. Her plan was to become a journalist, which she did for a while, but found her real niche a little later.
Initially, McLaughlin, mother of Riley, who is two, and Hunter, who is four months old, and wife of Greg, a Flagstaff firefighter, prepared for a career in newspapers. A native of Southern California, she was the editor of the school newspaper at Live Oak High School in Upland.
“That was pretty much my whole life,” she said.
When she started looking for a college, she found NAU, from which she graduated with a degree in journalism and set out on the course she had planned.
“I worked for a newspaper in Show Low as the Navajo County Editor,” she said. ”I loved my job. I stayed there for two years and then I decided I wanted to go back and get my master’s degree and teach English. I figured I would be a high school English teacher,” she said.
“When I was going to school to get my master’s degree, I became an AmericaCorps volunteer. I worked in the Red Cross office in Flagstaff and I never left.”
That was in 2001.
They let her do a little bit of everything for two and a half years.
“I responded to disasters; I was a youth mentor; I taught CPR and first aid and ran blood drives.”
She had grown to love Flagstaff and really wanted to stay when she learned of BOTHANDS, which needed a development director. She got the job. She was promoted to assistant director and when the long-time executive director retired, she was promoted once again.
“Between work and kids, I stay pretty busy.”
McLaughlin cannot talk about herself for very long without including BOTHANDS, her passion.
“We are a nonprofit housing organization, a locally organized and overseen group. We are not Habitat, where there are affiliates all over. We are located in Flagstaff.”
“We do quite a few things related to housing. We are a HUD-approved counseling organization. That means we help low-income and first-time homebuyers. We help them understand the whole process. We help folks prepare for homeownership.”
Sometimes people who want to buy a home are not prepared for it.
“We help them understand the roadblocks of not saving enough for the down payment, too many debts, poor credit. We help them fix those things and get ready to buy a house,” she said.
But the help does not stop there. They teach prospective homebuyers how to talk to a lender, for how much they can qualify, what would be an affordable mortgage for them and teach them how to shop for a home.
“We advocate for the client and help them through the process.”
She says the organization was founded in 1990 buy a group of local citizens who recognized the issue of the high cost of housing in Flagstaff and had friends, neighbors and employees who could not afford to buy a home. The group worked together to determine what they could do to help working families.
“We discovered people could afford the house payment, but they couldn’t afford the upfront expenses, so the city offered a homebuyer assistance program.”
Many years later, she says the city can help financially with Block Grants.
Since the program began, 285 families have been helped to get homes of their own and hundreds of others have been educated and counseled.
One of the programs that has been successful is the saving program when prospective homebuyers commit to saving for a down payment and closing costs, which can be as little as three years to a maximum of 10 years.
“Sometimes they are with us a while.”
She notes that the challenges for homebuyers change over time.
“Now that we are seeing home prices decrease – prices in Flagstaff are still higher than the national average – lending requirements are more restrictive. The pendulum has swung in the other direction. It is hard to qualify for a first mortgage and it is harder than ever before,” she said.
“We also provide foreclosure prevention counseling and we have a pretty good track record in that more than 50 percent of our clients are able to get a modification to maintain their homeownership.”
They also help people understand when it would be better for them to walk away from a home.
The organization also provides transitional housing for victims of domestic violence and their children.
Sharon Manor is filled to capacity, with 24 families with a waiting list of two years. It helps them identify goals, gain more effective parenting skills, education, get jobs and finish basic education.
In the future, McLaughlin said she hopes BOTHANDS can build some rental homes and continue to help people get into homes of their own and to keep on top of the changes in the process of home buying.
“We are a dynamic organization. It‘s never dull. It‘s never the same.” FBN