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A path for working families to move into foreclosed homes

For 21 years – almost from the day she came to America – Hyo Kwon dreamed of buying a home.

For 21 years – almost from the day she came to America – Hyo Kwon dreamed of buying a home.

She scanned newspapers. She surfed the Internet. But Kwon and her husband, Ki, could never save enough to afford a house.

That changed in March when the Kwons moved into a tidy, three-bedroom house on a quiet La Habra, Calif., street, with help from a program that provides grants and interest-free loans to working families buying rehabbed foreclosures.

It was a dream come true for an immigrant family that faces more challenges than most. Ki and Hyo Kwon both were left almost completely deaf by childhood illnesses in their native Korea.

"I feel very much at ease here," Ki Kwon, 58, said in sign language as 16-year-old daughter Susanna translated.

"I feel like I achieved freedom," added Hyo Kwon, 53, also in sign language.

The Kwons are among the families who are buying or renting homes through the federally sponsored Neighborhood Stabilization Program.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development allocates funds for the program to nonprofit housing organizations. The local agencies buy bank-owned homes, fix them up and help needy or middle-class families move in. In some cases, the families buy the home, with loans and grants to cover down payments and closing costs. In others, families rent homes or move in under lease-to-buy agreements.

The Neighborhood Stabilization Program, which dates back to 2008, was designed to buffer neighborhoods from the devastation of foreclosure by putting families into otherwise vacant homes. "Our goal is to acquire and turn the properties quickly to eliminate blight," said Glenn Hayes, president and CEO of NeighborWorks Orange County, which spearheads the area's HomeAgain program.

The home must be a family's primary residence. Income is capped for participating families, but there are no limits on appreciation the families can earn when they sell the properties.

As of March 7, HomeAgain had leased or sold 51 homes to Orange County-area families. The agency expects to sell about 11 more over the next year or so, said Ken Mutter, NeighborWorks' senior vice president.

The Kwons are among the recent families participating in the HomeAgain program.

Ki Kwon works as a clerk at a local post office, alongside a sign language interpreter. Hyo Kwon is a clothes maker at a small company in La Mirada, Calif.; she communicates with fellow workers by reading lips.

"Their story was really compelling," said Nora Mendez, executive director-elect of Orange County Community Housing Corp., a HomeAgain participant that supervised the Kwons' transaction. "The family had a lot of needs because of their disability. I really wanted to give them a chance and to help them out."

Community Housing bought the foreclosed home in July for $258,000, then invested $50,000 in repairs and cosmetic upgrades such as travertine floors, granite countertops, new appliances and landscaping.

The organization sold the home to the Kwons for $360,000, and provided a 30-year, interest-free loan of $19,000 to cover the down payment on the Federal Housing Administration loan and closing costs. A $100,000 grant from the Wells Fargo Housing Foundation funded the down-payment loan.

Until March, the family of four – the couple, daughter Susanna and son Daniel, 11 – had been sharing a two-bedroom apartment on busy Harbor Boulevard in Fullerton, Calif.

Ki and Hyo Kwon revel in the more secluded location of their new La Habra home.

"There's less traffic and fewer suspicious people walking around," said Hyo Kwon. "I feel comfortable, (and I like) fixing up the house."

The 1,202-square-foot house is furnished with simple wood couches and chairs, their walls adorned with framed Bible verses. Hyo Kwon said the family has cut back on food purchases, electricity use and water consumption to afford the $1,900-a-month mortgage payment.

Now, Daniel plays with their pet Chihuahua, Nana, in the back yard. Hyo Kwon is planning to strip out some of the lawn to plant tomatoes, cucumbers, sangchu and other Korean vegetables.

"Now," Hyo Kwon signed, "I can fix things up the way I like."


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