CHI educating potential homeowners

Friday, January 11, 2013
Community Housing Initiatives Chris Sill, a certified home ownership planner, is currently looking for a family to live in the company's rental home at 615 E. 11th St. and participate in CHI's home buyer training program. (Photo by Randy M. Cauthron)

Most people associate Spencer-based Community Housing Initiatives - or CHI - with its widely respected historic preservation and repurposing efforts to establish affordable housing opportunities. It makes sense. It was CHI's main focus when it opened its doors in the 1990s. The group's most recognized local project, involving the restoration and repurposing of the old Spencer Middle School to create multiple apartments above the Spencer Area Activity Center, earned the company praise regionally.

But CHI also offers a lesser known component focused on single family living.

Chris Sill, CHI's certified home ownership planner, facilitates the various aspects of the program, which include in-person and online home ownership classes, lease-to-purchase property opportunities, and assistance for those hoping to purchase a home.

"Home ownership isn't for everyone," Sill said, suggesting the CHI program will help a couple or individual decide if they are ready for the commitment of home ownership. "If you're not intending on staying at least two years, preferably five years, buying a house probably isn't the right thing for you to do right now."

For those who have a job where relocation is a likelihood, the time might not be right. But for those ready to make a commitment to settle for a few years, CHI has a program designed to assist first-time home buyers.

The home ownership department was established in 2007 and Sill came on board in 2008. It started with a series of person-to-person classes over multiple sessions. Entitled "Realizing the American Dream," from NeighborWorks America, participants are allowed the opportunity to learn about the home buying experience and gain a deeper understanding of the vital elements that go into the decision. Topics include budgeting, credit counseling, house shopping, getting a mortgage and maintaining the home.

Today, the course is conducted as one eight-hour program on a Saturday each month. Upcoming course offerings are on the CHI website,

"We can do a one-on-one class but really prefer to have three or four interested households in order to have a class," Sill explained.

This is the only course of its kind offered within a two-hour radius, and Sill is the only homeownership planner serving northwest Iowa.

In 2011, CHI began providing an online course for home buyers through E-Home America.

"E-Home is nationwide. Our coverage is mostly Western Iowa. We were the first ones in Iowa to work with them, but as other agencies have come on board, they've taken their regions, but I still have little pockets across the state," Sill said.

In 2009, the company introduced its Lease/Purchase program, offering an innovative opportunity for potential home buyers. CHI owns the homes and leases them as part of a home buyer education effort.

"While they're renting, they're responsible for maintaining the house, with the exception of big-ticket items. They live in a house, get the feel of a house and understand what it is to maintain a house," Sill said. CHI provides counseling and educational resources for its renters, and offers financial incentives for those participating in the program.

"Forty percent of the proceeds comes back to them for down payment assistance or closing costs when they decide to purchase the house they're renting from us, or another home, as long as they have completed all requirements of the program" Sill explained.

Program renters initially sign a one-year lease and go to a month-to-month basis for the final 12 months as a renter. There is a two-year maximum rental period for each participant.

"The majority of the ones we get are first-time home buyers, but they don't have to be," Sill said. "What qualifies as a first time home buyer is someone who hasn't owned a home in three years."

CHI currently has one of its two home rentals open - a three-bedroom, one-bath home on East 11th Street - and Sill is looking for an occupant to work with toward home ownership.

"I'm looking for a qualified candidate, maybe a new small family just getting started. Maybe someone who is displaced or is working to get their credit in order. Someone who is ready to buy a house and plans to stay in the area for a while," Sill said.

In the last five years, Sill suggested CHI has worked with more than 150 potential home buyers through one of its programs. To reach Sill and learn more about the assistance CHI has available, call 262-5640.

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