Program provides pathway to home independence

  • Article by: JENNIFER K. WOLDT
  • Associated Press
  • March 10, 2014 - 1:05 AM

OSHKOSH, Wis. — Rachel Ben-Ismail is quickly learning what goes into homeownership, whether it's figuring out why the heat hasn't kicked in or putting together a landscape plan.

Before buying her house on Jefferson Street, Ben-Ismail had lived most of her life in subsidized housing and never had to worry about those sorts of things. She grew up living in properties managed by the Chicago Housing Authority and received assistance from the Oshkosh/Winnebago Housing Authority after moving to Wisconsin.

But they were issues she wanted to tackle, and a federal housing program administered by the housing authority gave her a way to do it.

"I had been living in the same place for eight years," Ben-Ismail told Oshkosh Northwestern Media ( "I wanted to own a home."

Through the housing authority's Family Self-Sufficiency Program, Ben-Ismail not only realized her home-ownership dream, but she was also able to check off several other goals along the way, such as getting organized, learning to budget and going back to school and getting her bilingual ESL certification.

The program for people who receive federal Section 8 rental assistance began in 2009. It aims to increase participants' earned income and reduce their dependency on welfare assistance and rental subsidies by rewarding participants for working and meeting established goals. Thirty-six people are currently involved in the program and three are in the process of enrolling. Three people, including Ben-Ismail, have graduated.

It works by putting a portion of the participants' rent payments into an escrow account that can be used for a down payment on a home or other purposes. Section 8 housing participants' rents are based on 30 percent of their income, and when that income rises and the rent payments increase, the housing authority matches the increase in rent and puts it into a savings account, said Jennifer Ven Rooy, program coordinator.

For example, a participant who starts the program might be responsible for paying $100 toward their $500 monthly rent payment with the housing authority paying the remainder. If a participant gets a new job and their responsibility is increased to the full $500, the housing authority would then take the $400 it previously contributed and put it into a savings account.

By the time Ben-Ismail finished the five-year program, she had saved $14,000, enough to make a down payment on the Habitat for Humanity home that she bought in January.

"You don't realize how much money is there," Ben-Ismail said. "Everything seemed to fall into place and I was able to graduate."

The end goal is not always home ownership, like it was for Ben-Ismail. Goals can be owning a home, moving off of housing assistance and into a nicer apartment, finishing school, working with a budget or a number of other things, Ven Rooy said.

During the program, participants work on a weekly or monthly basis with Ven Rooy to identify goals and work toward gaining the tools to successfully meet them. This can include face-to-face meeting with Ven Rooy or workshops that address skills.

"It's not a cookie cutter type of plan," Ven Rooy said. "It's up to them what their goals are for five years. I want participants to think long-term and sometimes that's a little bit harder. I try to challenge them."

The program also allows the housing authority to reach out to help others once participants graduate from the program, said Susan van Houwelingen, executive director of the Oshkosh/Winnebago Housing Authority.

"We're helping people besides being lease compliant, but we're helping them with their daily lives," van Houwelingen said. "It's more than just a roof over their heads."

Ajn AP Member Exchange Feature shared by Oshkosh Northwestern Media

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