DAYTONA BEACH — Petra Smiley’s new home isn’t exactly one of those tony riverfront estates with lush tropical landscaping, a backyard pool and deck for moonlit parties, and a dock to park the family yacht.
Her house is a 1,250-square-foot concrete block structure built when Richard Nixon was president and located in a no-frills neighborhood just east of Nova Road near Bellevue Avenue.
But to Smiley, a longtime dweller of cramped apartments, it’s the castle she’s been dreaming of for more than a decade. The four-bedroom home has plenty of space for her and her two small children, there’s a yard complete with a huge oak tree in back, a carport will protect her from the rain, and interior upgrades give the home a modern, polished look.
Best of all, it’s hers. The 42-year-old is finally free of landlords.
It was a feat that could have been impossible with Smiley’s $18,000 salary. But she received financial assistance to purchase the $166,900 home through a new local program called Homes Bring Hope.
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“There are not enough words to describe how grateful I am,” said Smiley, the first person assisted by Homes Bring Hope. “It’s just the most exciting thing. It’s been a long time since I’ve lived in a house.”
Homes Bring Hope is on a quest to transform as many low-income renters into homeowners as possible. The program’s goal is to make 12 renters homeowners by the end of this year. The hope is that tally can be doubled to 24 new homeowners in 2022.
‘One family at a time’
Smiley closed on the sale of her home April 2, and Homes Bring Hope has already purchased two more houses they’ll eventually sell to clients at cost.
“To me it’s one family at a time,” said Forough Hosseini, founder of Homes Bring Hope. “If I can save one kid, that’s good enough for me. If I save one family, what is that worth?”
The overarching goal is to reduce generational poverty by making homeowners of renters, particularly the renters in Daytona Beach’s 32114 zip code where 23.4% of people live in poverty.
“Over 40% of households in Volusia County do not consistently earn enough to cover basic living expenses,” said Buck James, executive director of Halifax Urban Ministries.
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The program is a team effort of agencies, businesses and individuals that are covering costs, providing expertise and taking care of repairs and renovations. Team members include the Daytona Beach Housing Authority, Halifax Urban Ministries, Mid-Florida Housing Partnership, city of Daytona Beach, Realty Pros Assured, Southern Title, Sliger & Associates, Daytona State College, four local attorneys, and other companies and organizations.
Equally important are the philanthropists providing program funding, including automobile dealership owner Glenn Ritchey, local businesswoman Jill Simpkins, and the Hosseini family, who have each given at least $100,000. Additional donors and business partners are being sought by the nonprofit organization, which will soon have a board overseeing efforts.
Ritchey had humble beginnings in Kentucky in the 1940s and 1950s, and he knows what poverty looks like and feels like.
“I grew up around it, and I’m very familiar with how generationally you can get locked into that,” said Ritchey, Daytona Beach’s former mayor. “I’m happy to be involved in this. It’s a beginning.”
The program will “cut through a lot of the costs of home ownership” and break cycles of poverty, Ritchey said.
“Nothing like this exists,” he said.
At the heart of the new effort is Hosseini, a senior vice president of ICI Homes, which is her family’s company and one of the nation’s largest homebuilders.
It’s Hosseini’s fourth major initiative to battle Volusia County poverty and the devastation that comes with it.
Her first effort was the Food Brings Hope program that helps economically disadvantaged students excel in school and get enough to eat. She was also a major player in Hope Place, a vacant elementary school that was transformed into a shelter for homeless families, teens and young adults. She also spearheaded the VCan program aimed at eradicating homelessness and hunger among Volusia County’s children.
“There is no question that we will succeed in reducing the poverty level in our community,” said Hosseini, who began creating Homes Bring Hope a year ago. “The only question is how long will it take to get there.”
A sobering look at poverty in Florida and Daytona Beach
Hosseini’s idea to start Homes Bring Hope grew out of a conversation she had last year with Florida Chamber of Commerce CEO Mark Wilson. He asked her to lead the fight against generational poverty in the Volusia County area, and the result was Homes Bring Hope.
The Florida Chamber of Commerce Foundation announced its Prosperity Initiative last year. The organization’s research found more than 3 million Floridians living in poverty, nearly 15% of the state’s population.
“Any movement toward our goal takes a bite out of poverty and helps deserving people build a better future based on their own hard work,” Wilson said. “Once the cycle of poverty is broken, the next generations will be able to look to the future with optimism and hope that they could not experience otherwise.”
The Prosperity Initiative was created in response to a study that revealed 50% of Florida’s 870,505 poverty-stricken children reside in just 15% of the state’s 983 zip codes. Daytona Beach’s 32114 zip code is included in that 15%.
The 32114 zip code extends from the Halifax River west to Interstate 95, and from Mason Avenue south to Beville Road.
In some Florida zip codes, the poverty level exceeds 50%. The Prosperity Initiative is targeting zip codes with the highest poverty rates in an effort to reduce their poverty levels to less than 10% by 2030.
In Daytona Beach’s 32114 zip code, more than 3,000 children, 54%, are growing up in poverty. Among Florida’s poor statewide, more than 20% are kids — 829,342 children living in poverty.
The overall national poverty rate is 11.85% for all ages, and 16.27% for people under 18.
“The sheer number of Floridians living in poverty in our state impacts not only individual families, but also businesses, Florida’s economy, and our state’s global competitiveness,” Hosseini said.
“It says what kind of city we are and who may be attracted to bring a business here,” Ritchey said. “It has a lot of tentacles to it. It impacts our taxes, economy, tourism.”
The Prosperity Initiative is looking at a half-dozen causes of poverty that linger from generation to generation: Education/training; transportation; housing; health and wellness; food security and child/family care.
Homes Bring Hope is zeroing in on housing, and will work with agencies such as the Daytona Beach Housing Authority and Hope Place family shelter to find people who’ve rented most or all of their lives and need a hand to make the leap to home ownership.
Turning renters into homeowners
Those interested in buying a house through the program are required to start by taking a class for first-time home buyers. They’ll also have to enroll in a program for down payment assistance, and provide documentation such as bank statements to prove eligibility.
Only people who work or are on disability qualify for the program. Those who have a good credit score can qualify for a loan even if they have a low income.
The team Hosseini has assembled tried to think of every roadblock the aspiring homeowners could run into, and what Homes Bring Hope could have in place to help them clear each hurdle.
Clients will be vetted and approved by the Daytona Beach Housing Authority and Mid-Florida Housing Partnership. Down payment assistance will be secured through various banks, the city of Daytona Beach, Daytona Beach Housing Authority and possibly other organizations and companies.
A key part of the program will be showing people how they can use their Housing Choice Vouchers that help cover their rent for a mortgage instead. The new homeowner can contribute the same amount they did for rent, and the federal Housing Choice Voucher program that many people know as Section 8 could actually have a lower cost.
A married couple checking out the program provides an example. The couple, who are not being identified to protect their privacy, have two children and a household income of $24,960. Their current rent is $1,320, and they pay $494 monthly while the voucher picks up the remaining $826.
Through Homes Bring Hope that family could buy a $175,000 house, put 20% down and secure a 30-year loan with 3% interest for the remaining $140,000 owed. The monthly mortgage payments for the loan, homeowner’s insurance and property taxes would come to about $825.
The family could still pay $494 monthly, and the Housing Choice Voucher program would pay only $331 to cover the rest of the mortgage.
That family could buy a $166,000 home under the program with just 5% down, still pay $494 and the voucher would pick up the remaining $442 owed on the mortgage each month — still less than the $826 the Housing Choice Voucher pays each month for the family’s rent.
People who use the Housing Choice Vouchers to pay a mortgage will also receive assistance covering costs for utilities such as electricity and water, daycare for children 12 years old or younger, taxes, insurance and repairs.
In the long run, Homes Bring Hope will save both the government and homeowner money. Last year the Housing Choice Voucher program paid out $8 million to Daytona Beach landlords, said Terril Bates, CEO of the Daytona Beach Housing Authority.
If a family never stops renting, their voucher assistance never ends if they don’t find a way to make more money. But as homeowners, they eventually pay off the home loan and the vouchers are no longer be needed.
The vouchers can be used for mortgage payments for 15 years, Bates said. The homeowners can refinance after 15 years if they need to, she said.
She noted that the $15,000 down payment loans the Housing Authority will provide to 10 homeowners can be forgiven if they stay in their homes for at least five years.
She said she’s been reaching out to Housing Authority residents who make at least $12 per hour and have credit scores of 620 or better.
People in the program can pick out a home on the market in the 32114 zip code, as Smiley did. Homes Bring Hope is also working toward establishing a partnership with the city to acquire dozens of surplus lots the city owns to build affordable houses on those properties scattered around Daytona Beach.
Homes Bring Hope is also buying homes “as is” and paying cash, almost a necessity in the red hot local housing market where homes for sale are getting snatched up immediately. When homebuyers in the program secure their loans, they’ll purchase the houses at cost.
“We can buy a house for $175,000 and sell it to the client for $169,000,” Hosseini said.
Daytona State College’s construction program will renovate the homes, which saves program participants money and gives DSC students real world experience.
Halifax Urban Ministries, which runs the Hope Place shelter, will provide a five-year warranty for new homeowners at no cost to the client. The warranty will cover things such as stoves and air conditioners, and will help ensure that an unexpected house repair expense doesn’t keep a family from paying their mortgage on time.
Southern Title will provide title insurance at the lowest cost possible. Homes Bring Hope will even make sure there are new appliances in the home, and that there are no major repairs lurking.
“Our aim is to close on the house the client chooses with the least possible cost and giving them the resources necessary to make sure they are successful — long-term — in their home ownership journey,” Hosseini said.
The program will also help clients sign up for UpSkill courses at Daytona State College, which provide training to help people get better jobs. The courses are funded by federal dollars from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Program participants will also get a hand with childcare and transportation so they can attend the classes.
“We have partnered with Robin King of Career Source Flagler Volusia and Jayne Fifer of VMA for this effort,” Hosseini said.
Once people are in homes, program leaders will keep in touch with them for at least a few years to make sure they remain financially stable and are handling home ownership.
It was during three meetings last year at Daytona State College to let people know about the UpSkill courses that Hosseini heard people saying their greatest need was affordable housing. It was another key spark for Homes Bring Hope.
Hosseini said increasing people’s financial stability through home ownership will eventually help the community by giving them more money to spend on other things. It will also strengthen and beautify neighborhoods, she said.
‘When you rent an apartment, it’ll never be yours’
Homes Bring Hope will start with getting people into homes in the 32114 zip code, but might expand in future years to other areas of Daytona Beach and Volusia County.
“Homes Bring Hope will concentrate in the 32114 zip code area until we feel we have made a considerable difference before moving to other zip codes, unless invited and supported by other interested cities,” Hosseini said.
Last month Bank of America gave Halifax Urban Ministries a $55,000 grant that will be used for an outreach worker in the 32114 zip code who will help bridge gaps in attaining permanent housing. It’s part of the Bank of America Charitable Foundation’s nationwide $1 billion, four-year commitment to help local nonprofits address economic and racial equality.
James, the head of Halifax Urban Ministries, said Homes Bring Hope was starting as he was already trying to get his Hope Place shelter residents in houses, not just apartments.
“Once people in that community see it’s possible, it doesn’t take long for other people to want to be a part of it,” James said.
Without Homes Bring Hope, Smiley might have never found her way out of the poverty cycle. She loves her job working 35 hours a week as the office manager of Mount Bethel Baptist Institutional Church, which has a rich history in Daytona Beach that goes back to 1885.
The downside of the job she’s had the past six years is she only makes around $9 per hour. As a single mother with an 8-year-old son and 14-month-old daughter, the money doesn’t go far.
The help she received from the Housing Authority and Homes Bring Hope filled many of her financial gaps by providing her $15,000 in down payment assistance, setting up a free survey, paying for an electrician’s certificate and arranging for her home warranty.
Smiley, a New York native who moved to Florida in 2003, understands what a huge financial advantage she has now as a homeowner.
She has been receiving a Housing Choice Voucher, which allowed her to pay only $600 every month of her $1,114 rent for a Port Orange apartment. But she knew every time she wrote a rent check she would never see the money again.
Now the $1,098 mortgage payments on her new home will give her security one month at a time.
“When you rent an apartment, it’ll never be yours, no matter how much you pay,” she said. “It feels better to have an asset.”
She’ll continue to get the voucher, so the amount of money coming out of her pocket for housing won’t go up.
Smiley said it also feels good to break free from living on top of other people in apartments. She’s savoring no longer having people on the other side of the wall, or in a unit over her head. No more lugging groceries up steps.
She’ll move into her new house April 23, and she’s already daydreaming about decorating for all the different holidays and giving her kids a safe place to play outside the home located on a low-traffic cul-de-sac.
Now her kids will have their own swing set, and she and her son will have a place to venture outside at night with their telescope to gaze at the stars and planets.
“It’s wonderful,” Smiley said.