Low-income housing initiative helps make home ownership possible

Lillian Clemons, shown here Saturday at her Old Town home, said she never dreamed she would really get a new house when she signed up for the SHIP program in Dixie County. But once she finally moved in, Clemons said more than three years of waiting was worth it.

KAREN VOYLES/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Tuesday, February 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 31, 2005 at 10:46 p.m.
OLD TOWN - Lillian Clemons spent more than three years on a waiting list to get help building a home to replace her condemned mobile home.
"I never dreamt I would actually get a house built because it was so long between when I applied and when they actually started to build it," Clemons said. "When they came out here and told me it was finally my time, I didn't believe them."
The conventionally built home was constructed on property that Clemons and her late husband had owned since 1968. The financing for it was made possible through a 12-year-old state program known as State Housing Initiatives Partnership (SHIP).
The program has become so popular in Dixie County that demand far exceeds the available financial help.
"We have a 4-year waiting list out here because there's a bunch of people who need help," said Dick Edwards, the consultant Dixie County commissioners hired to handle the program for the poor, rural county. The per capita income for the county's approximately 16,000 residents is about $16,000.
Ian Smith, a spokesman for the Florida Housing Finance Corporation, which administers SHIP, said the program is paid for out of documentary stamp tax revenues from all 67 counties. SHIP redistributes the money based on population, with each county receiving at least $350,000 a year and many of the state's largest cities also receiving some money.
While each county or city can come up with its own way of administering the program and use up to 10 percent of the money for administration, the state has minimum requirements.
At least a third of the money must go to those with very low incomes, which the state defines as incomes at 50 percent or less of the county or city median income. Another third must be set aside for those with low incomes, which is income no more than 80 percent of the median income in that county or city. The remaining money can be spent to help those whose income is defined as moderate, which would no more than 120 percent of the median income.
The money must be used to "produce and preserve affordable housing," Smith said. Acceptable uses of the money include emergency repairs, new construction, rehabilitation, down payments and closing costs, impact fees, gap financing and matching dollars with other government programs.
The Suwannee River Economic Council administers the SHIP program for several counties in northern Florida, including Columbia, Suwannee and Union counties. Director Matt Pearson said the program has been able to serve all those who have qualified.
"This is a first-come, first-served program and fortunately in the last few years we have had enough money to be able to help those who asked and were qualified," he said.
Officials in Alachua County and Gainesville, as well as Bradford, Gilchrist and Levy counties, also reported no current waiting lists.
Edwards said the waiting list in Dixie County is evidence that the program is much needed. Smith said the 2004 hurricane season also drew additional attention to the program as uninsured and underinsured homeowners looked for help.
Clemons said her experience with the SHIP program ended so happily for her that she now encourages others to get in line.
"I would tell people go put in an application - it may take a while but it's worth the wait," Clemons said.
Karen Voyles can be reached at (352) 486-5058 or voylesk@gvillesun.com.

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