Akirah Pressley’s three decades of life have been marked by instability.

When she was 13, her mother died. A few years later, she was forced to leave home. She graduated from high school with a baby. She has moved more than 20 times.

“I was almost homeless,” she said. “Yeah, I was a teen mom. They want you to look at these things like a negative, but life is what you make it.”

Last August, she was able to buy a rowhouse in Northeast Philadelphia. She has a front lawn and autonomy and stability.

“Having my own home, I love it,” she said. “This was always a dream of mine to buy a home.”

» READ MORE: How to get a first-time home buyer grant in the Philly region

Like many first-time home buyers, especially those with low incomes that make saving difficult, Pressley faced a barrier she couldn’t overcome on her own: the immediate up-front purchase costs. So she cobbled together buyer assistance grants: $2,000 from the Philadelphia Housing Authority through its PhillySEEDS closing cost assistance program, $5,000 from the First Front Door program through her lender, $4,000 from a United Way match program. She added in money she’d saved to qualify for matching funds.

At one point, Pressley worked seven days a week at two jobs. Now she makes about $33,000 working for the School District of Philadelphia. PHA helps her pay her mortgage through a voucher.

For many people who could afford monthly mortgage payments, high up-front costs, including down payments and closing costs, stand in the way of home ownership. That’s especially true for those whose families don’t have accumulated wealth to give them a leg up. Buyer assistance through government programs, lenders, and nonprofits can allow people to purchase homes who otherwise couldn’t.

Home ownership can stabilize families and communities, increase tax revenue, and support local economies. Owners can grow their household’s wealth and use their home equity to send children to school or to start a business.

» READ MORE: U.S. inflation jumped 8.5% in the past year, highest since 1981

Right now, rising rents and costs of living are making saving even more difficult as wages aren’t keeping pace. Limited housing supply and skyrocketing home prices over the last couple of years mean buyers have to pay larger deposits and settlement costs. So as home buyers look for assistance, grants don’t go as far as they used to. And assistance programs can quickly run through limited funds.

One program that wasn’t available to Pressley was Philadelphia’s first-time home buyer grant program. Philly First Home ran out of money in 2020. In the coming weeks, the city is bringing it back with about $55 million from the Neighborhood Preservation Initiative. The funds are expected to help about 7,000 households over the next few years, according to city officials.

Maria N. Gonzalez, president of the Hispanic Association of Contractors and Enterprises (HACE), said the community development corporation and housing counseling agency sees people in Pressley’s situation “all the time.” Aspiring homeowners with limited savings have to stack grants and loans to afford up-front costs.

» READ MORE: Struggling to save for a down payment? Your county government might be able to help

David Thomas, chief executive officer of the Philadelphia Housing Development Corp., which manages the Philly First Home program, knows that one grant alone can’t fill the need.

“I think it is going to require, to some degree, a collective effort to get some of these people over the hurdle,” he said.

Challenges for first-time home buyers

“The new average home being built is outside the means of most first-time home buyers,” said Rick Sauer, executive director of the Philadelphia Association of Community Development Corporations.

Most buyers typically need roughly 10% of a home’s purchase price to pay for down payment and settlement costs, said Patrick Lopez, senior loan officer at Quaint Oak Mortgage, based in Allentown. And that’s more of a challenge for buyers who don’t have proceeds from a home sale.

“The toughest thing for that first-time home buyer, they may have the income, their credit is fine, but it’s always saving enough money to get into a home,” Lopez said. “That’s a really big key.”

» READ MORE: Record low housing supply across the Philly area will continue to challenge buyers

A survey by U.S. News & World Report found that about half of home buyers say their main concern is being able to afford the purchase.

“Most people thought eventually [prices] would come back down to normal, come back down to earth,” said Beverly Harzog, consumer finance analyst at U.S. News. But that hasn’t happened yet, even as mortgage rates climb.

If buyers can increase their down payments with savings, grants, and other sources, they can lower their monthly mortgage costs. In the current strong seller’s market, more buyers are clamoring for homes and fewer sellers are offering to share up-front costs. Grants can help fill some of the gap left by a lack of seller assistance.

One of Lopez’s clients is a woman who teaches special education and saved $12,000 to buy a home for herself and her three children. But she needs $20,000 to get into the house. That’s where grants and other assistance can make the difference, he said.

The return of Philly First Home

Philadelphia had offered limited home buyer grants in the past, but Philly First Home “caught fire” after the city launched the program in 2019 and began distributing thousands of dollars per household, said Thomas at the Philadelphia Housing Development Corp.

The latest iteration of the program that closed in September 2020 assisted about 2,700 households. Roughly 57% of participants were Black. About two-thirds of grant recipients had incomes at 80% of the area median or below — $75,600 for a household of four. The program distributed average grants of almost $9,000.

» READ MORE: High prices and low supply make buying a home harder, especially for Black households

Residents, real estate agents, housing counselors, and others have been asking about Philly First Home, Thomas said.

“I’m probably getting calls every day,” he said. “‘When are you getting this program back up and running again?’”

Philly First Home offers grants of either $10,000 or 6% of a home’s purchase price, whichever is lower. Grants are available to those making up to the median area income, which is $94,500 for a household of four. Grantees must go through housing counseling before purchasing a home.

When Philly First Home returns, “we anticipate a flood” of applicants, and funds will move quickly, said Gonzalez at HACE.

» READ MORE: Philly expands down-payment assistance program that will give $10,000 to first-time home buyers (From 2019)

“Philly First Home is an opportunity for home buyer grants to be able to achieve the American dream of buying a home,” she said.

Other assistance programs helped fill the void

While Philly First Home has been unavailable, home buyers have been taking advantage of new and longtime programs offered by states and counties, nonprofits, and lenders. Some employers also offer home buying assistance to their workers, and some programs target people in certain professions, such as the medical field.

“The more options a person has, the better it is for them,” Lopez said, especially because programs have different requirements and limitations.

The Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency’s K-FIT program, which debuted a year ago, distributes forgivable loans for down payment and closing costs of 5% of the purchase price or the appraised value of the home, whichever is less.

» READ MORE: Philly-area homeowners are building wealth quickly, thanks to rising prices

United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey offers matching grants that recipients can use to purchase a first home. When the aspiring homeowner saves $2,000, United Way contributes $4,000.

The First Front Door program offers up to $5,000 for first-time home buyers in Pennsylvania who contribute some of their own money.

The Urban League of Philadelphia is one of the local nonprofits that offer home buyer assistance. Abraham Reyes Pardo, the organization’s director of housing, said many clients wait for tax refunds to try to purchase homes, because it’s the one time they get a large sum of money. Grants can help households buy at any time during the year.

“There is funding out there,” he said. “As soon as the city decided to pull the plug on the [Philly First Home] program, I already had a long list of lenders who were offering their own incentives.”

Housing counseling agencies can help home buyers find assistance. Reyes Pardo said aspiring homeowners should ask everyone — from lenders to community groups to bosses — whether they offer home buyer incentives and whether incentives can be stacked together as Pressley did to buy her Crescentville home.

Pressley has big plans for this first house of hers. She wants to build wealth she can leave to her children. She dreams of turning her home into a day care center and then eventually maybe a group home for teen mothers.

“I’m definitely not going to stop here,” she said.

This story has been updated to reflect Philly First Home’s funding timeline.

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.