Julie Hernandez is the proud owner of her three-bedroom, two-bath home in American Canyon. For this longtime renter, it’s a purchase she never thought possible.
That is, until she enrolled in the Family Self-Sufficiency (FSS) program.
In addition to buying her first house, Hernandez has also since earned bookkeeping and other certificates from Napa Valley Adult School, landed a well-paying job as an accounting assistant at a Napa insurance business and created a more-stable financial future for herself and her family.
“I feel quite accomplished,” said Hernandez, who is a single mother. She credits her success to her hard work and the FSS program.
“Without the program, I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish the things I have done.”
Before she signed up, Hernandez had never heard of the FSS program. For someone who had always rented, “It seemed too good to be true,” she thought at the time.
Julia Smith, housing specialist for the FSS program, explained how it works.
Created by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the FSS program links tenants who receive the Section 8 rental assistance to supportive services.
Those can include education, job training and placement, career related workshops, financial literacy, counseling, child care, and other resources. Anything necessary “to achieve economic independence and self-sufficiency through employment,” Smith explained.
An FSS case manager assists tenants in developing and following a five-year plan, including goals and objectives.
Most notably, the FSS program provides a financial incentive for the tenant — sort of a built-in savings program — an interest-bearing escrow account.
For most people using a Section 8 subsidy, as their household income increases due to new or increased wages, the monthly rental subsidy is reduced and the tenant’s rental responsibility to the landlord increases, explained Smith.
However, for the tenants enrolled in the FSS program, the housing authority places a portion of the family’s monthly increase in the tenant’s escrow account.
For example, if the tenant’s rent increases $300 due to a wage increase, it places $300 in to their escrow account.
Once the tenant completes his or her goals and is not receiving public assistance, the tenant then gets the money from their escrow account. That money can then be used for things like paying off debt to improve credit scores, educational expenses or for a down payment on a home.
“A successful Family Self-Sufficiency program in Napa enhances the standard of living and self-esteem of the participants as they become more productive members of the community and are no longer dependent on government assistance,” said Smith.
Hernandez signed up for the FSS program in 2013.
“I was a little apprehensive at first,” but “the truth is it was everything they said it was going to be,” said Hernandez. “It worked.”
It was a seamless transition for Hernandez — she didn’t have to change anything about the way she was already paying her rent.
Hernandez did agree to set up a financial and personal plan, including goals “which wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be,” she said.
Her top goals were to clean up her credit, go back to school, and save money to go on a vacation.
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And, “I did those things,” said Hernandez. “I cleaned up my credit. And I got a good paying job after I completed the course at the adult school, and I now own my own home.”
When she graduated from FSS in June 2018, she was awarded $22,698.78 from her “savings” account.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t some challenges along the way.
The home she planned to buy happened to be the same house she’d been renting for many years.
Hernandez entered the program thinking her boyfriend would contribute financially to the purchase.
When they broke up, her first reaction was, “Oh, my God, there goes the opportunity to afford to buy this house.”
“I thought there is no way I will qualify. I don’t make enough money. It was a bleak moment in time. And I had started looking for a place to rent. I did not think they were going to be able to do it.”
She’d lived in her home for eight years by then. “The thought of moving brought tears to my eyes.”
But after connecting with the right finance company, “I got a good deal with a really low interest rate.”
“By the grace of God,” it worked out, Hernandez said.
How does it feel to own her own home?
Hernandez certainly feels a sense of satisfaction. At the same time, “It’s kind of scary,” she admitted.
“I’m not married. I don’t have anybody else. If I fail, it’s all on me. But if I succeed all that benefit is mine.”
If she hadn’t chosen to enter the FSS program, Hernandez said she isn’t sure where she’d be now.
“I’m glad I don’t have to think about it.”
She definitely recommends others consider the FSS program: “Do it. There really is nothing to lose and so much to gain.”
Don’t be discouraged by the process, she said.
“When I was first filling out the paperwork and doing my plan, I did a lot of eye rolling,” she admitted. At the time, “it seemed like nonsense.”
However, Hernandez soon learned that when you write down goals and what you want to accomplish, “It lights a fire under your tush. It makes it possible.”
In December 2017, the FSS program celebrated its 25th anniversary.
Since 1993m the Napa FSS program has enrolled 441 tenants and 191 tenants have successfully completed the FSS program. Each has received an average of $7,000 in “savings funds,” but some accounts have totaled more than $20,000.