All Their Eggs In Easter's Basket

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Small Town Makes Would-Be Homeowners Wish Come True

Intelligence, experience, passion, and resolve helped snatch the little North Carolina town of Troy from the grips of slum lords.

It wasn’t as easy as A, B, C, but the town’s innovative Rent-To-Own Housing Program began with a letter.

The letter came from lifetime Troy resident Easter Butler.

Dear Mayor Maness:

All my life I have wanted to own my own home. I have a low income but I have worked my whole life. Can you help me?

Roy Maness, a former CEO of W. H Weaver Construction Company, one of the largest builders in the Southeast, had made a career of problem solving. Logistic, economic, social, political...you name it Maness had handled it.

“I was used to being confronted with difficult situations,” Maness said. “I’d learned that sometimes the solution can spill over and become a positive for other issues that need resolve as well.”

And so it went.

The letter would not only bring a resident’s personal issue to the attention of an elected official. It would serve as an important reminder for Maness of a social problem, one threatening Troy and practically every other town in America.

Slum lords, a.k.a., absentee owners, were skip roping through HUD (Housing, Urban and Development) loopholes, using government appropriated funds to create and maintain substandard housing. The result for towns like Troy? Undesirable residents, high crime communities and a low tax base.

“It’s like a cancer,” the mayor said. “The rent is either subsidized in full or part. Substandard housing is constructed or rented. Bad people move in. Good people move out. It can ruin a town.”

Somewhere in that “building” background the Mayor had learned to go to the powers that be... not with a problem but with a solution. That’s what he took to his town board, a plan based on pride and filled with hope, one that would not only potentially make Troy slum lord free but a concept that would help the Easter Butlers of the town–good, hard working, law abiding citizens–own their very first home.

Fact! Troy was in need of revitalization and redevelopment. The first target that Maness and his board took aim on was a former textile mill housing community, a run-down area that has since been renamed Smitherman Village.

“We wanted to recognize the mill that created it and signify a new beginning.” Maness said.

It took a bit of bureaucracy to drive Smitherman Village’s first nail. The town board formed the Troy Redevelopment Commission that would partner with the Troy Housing Authority, Montgomery County Department of Social Services, and the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service.

“Bureaucracy and partnerships were key but you have to have a non-profit that understands how the private sector works and perhaps more importantly how it won’t work.” Maness said. “So a separate, not-for-profit community development corporation called the Troy Neighborhood Redevelopment Corporation (TNRC) was commissioned by the town to act as the redeveloper for the project.”

A key to this plan would come in the TNRC’s charge to administer this unique Rent-To-Own program. And the TNC never lost sight of the people, the pride, hope and improved living conditions that this revitalization and redevelopment could bring to Troy’s citizens.

Along with this came support from Congressman Robin Hayes of North Carolina’s eighth district. The result was the groundwork for a program that is now about a roof raising away from being a national model for home ownership and revitalization.

Baby steps: Armed with federal (HUD) and state grants exceeding $1.5 million Maness and the TNC lawyered up and moved the slum lords out. By calling on state statutes they legally declared the blighted area of town a redevelopment area. “This along with the grant money was key. It allowed us to seize and buy run-down housing. During the first phase we claimed and purchased in excess of twenty properties,” said Maness.

Now the TNRC’s hammer was poised and suddenly ringing. The first four houses are stick-built construction, three bedroom and two bath units, and are approximately 1,200 feet in size. They are all built with low-maintenance materials–brick, vinyl siding.

But, according to Maness, as important as these land acquisitions were, the key to Troy’s Rent-To-Own program wouldn’t be found in the land, the bricks or the mortar. The pass-fail for this test would be in the participants of the Rent- To-Qwn program.

Would the corporation’s screening, selection, and guidance of this low cost rent-to-own housing (approximately 30 percent of the participants income) bring about resident performance that would prove the mayor right?

The program’s controls clearly weight the odds of success in the TNRC’s favor. Participants enter the program on a trial basis. Those who could not comply with the program’s guidelines are weeded out. The rules insist on a set minimum income ($10,300), a repairable credit history, and no detrimental criminal history.

All of this and then six months of mandatory “how to be a homeowner” classes. A built in home counselor not only oversees the upkeep of the home but advises the program’s owners on everything from family budgeting, banking and finance to credit and insurance.

“That’s the first six months, during the rental period,” said Maness, “If they pass the muster and move into the homeowners phase the counselor focuses on housekeeping, house maintenance, homeowership and how to be a good neighbor and citizen.”

Oh, and just when one might think that the entire genius of this small town’s genie is out of the bottle! More safeguards, all solidly in place to ensure the program’s success: restrictions on the property for the life of the mortgage to prevent future problems with a homeowner, and a homeowners association overseeing property appearance, homeowners conduct, and maintenance of the residence.

“Should a home owner find themselves financially strapped during the life of the loan there’s a fund built into the program, one that an owner can apply for. It enables them keep their house up to the association’s standards,” Maness said.

There was a day when a car ride through the “Smitherton Village” side of town had the mayor ducking for cover. “This was a rough area of town. You would have been afraid to walk from one corner to the next,” he said.

Now Maness and his assistants Johnny Wear, the town planner and director of the TNC, and Ron Niland, consultant, interim town manager, make this ride–day and night–with pride. As the mayor’s vehicle takes a turn onto Smitherton Street, Niland summarizes Troy’s Rent-To-Own program, making the points that separate Troy’s program from other U.S. moderate cost housing ventures.

“First and foremost are the controls. They stay with the house and are governed through the homeowners association and the deed restrictions. Secondly we have a certified housing counselor. Through government grants and the home owner’s payments we’ve been able to fund a salaried housing counselor, a professional, a neighborhood advocate, an advisor and helper to those folks who are so desperately want to succeed as homeowners. This isn’t for a year or so, it’s for the life of the mortgage, “ Niland said.

The third and equally important component separating Troy’s Rent-To-Own program from other low-cost housing programs is the $5,000 component built into every home’s loan. This feature serves as a maintenance fund.

Maness again: “Many of the folks live from paycheck to paycheck. This is just another safeguard, one that not only helps maintain the property but the hope and pride of the residents of Troy who Rent-To-Own.”

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Bob Cairns
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