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Adams School Condos become new home for Boston Marathon bombing survivor

Sitting on the couch in her new living room at the Adams School Condominiums, Karen McWatters talks about the blue and green rug underfoot – her first purchase for her new home. She built the room around its ocean-like hues, adding green pillows and sea-glass colored vases and candle holders. The whale décor scattered around the condo is a coincidence, she says – her new husband, Kevin, is a fan of the Hartford Whalers ice hockey team, as evidenced by the two ball caps that have prominent (if begrudging, on her part) placement on the console table.

She explains that her recovery has hit a bump, and she needs another surgery to walk comfortably on her prosthetic leg. She faces weeks of post-surgery recovery in a wheelchair. She’s all the more thankful now for her new home, which is fully handicap-accessible.

No matter their provenance, the nautical touches seem right at home in the Munjoy Hill condo, where bay windows afford a glimpse of the ocean. Karen closed on the condo last August, and she’s looking forward to walking down to the ocean this summer. Even though it’s a short walk, completing it would be a milestone for her since she lost her left leg in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

“I wanted to just have my life now,” she says. “It’s like, I know I have this place, and I’m all set. I don’t have to worry, and it’s a huge thing not to have to worry. I can just do what I’ve got to do to get better.”

Searching for a new home

Before the bombing, Karen (whose last name was Rand at the time) and Kevin were living in Massachusetts but looking for a summer home in Old Orchard Beach where they could stay while visiting family. But after the bombing, they realized they needed a year-round home that was handicap accessible.

But it was hard to find that kind of place in Old Orchard Beach, and the search took them further and further away from the center of town. “I’d feel like a prisoner stuck in my house, I couldn’t go anywhere,” she said. Karen and Kevin ultimately decided they needed to look elsewhere.

Their search led them to Portland, where “it was a challenge to find an affordable place, and also handicap-accessible.” When the Adams School Condominiums came on the market, her realtor showed her the listing and urged her to look at it before it sold. Kevin convinced her to drive by just to see it on a Friday afternoon: “He said, ‘Let’s go,’ we pulled into the lot and didn’t even get out of the car. I called my realtor and said, ‘Put in an offer,’” Karen recalls.

Karen and Kevin at the closing of their condo

“From the day I walked through the front door I haven’t regretted it,” she says. “I’m so grateful and so happy to be able to come here and just recuperate – it’s exactly what I needed.”

From her condo, Karen can easily get herself to local shops and restaurants, like Hilltop Coffee, Rosemont Market and The Front Room. And she’s grateful for the new support system she’s found in her neighbors. “They all watch out for me, they know my story. It’s like its own little community.”

The 16 townhouse-style Adams School Condos sit at the corner of Moody, Wilson and Vesper streets in Portland’s desirable Munjoy Hill neighborhood, where rising property values have become increasingly unaffordable to many. Priced below market rate for similar properties and available only to buyers making no more than 120% of the area median income, the Adams School Condos provide homeownership opportunities on the Hill that are affordable to people like Karen.

Moving forward

A Westbrook native, Karen previously spent a couple years living on Munjoy Hill, not far from her new place, while working for Standish Telephone. She went on to become an executive assistance for a chef in Massachusetts, a job she loved. She loved living in Cambridge and “became a city girl,” she says, selling her car and walking everywhere.

On Patriots’ Day 2013, she was at the Boston Marathon cheering on her then-boyfriend Kevin when the bombing happened. It cost her more than her leg. Her best friend, Krystle, did not survive.

“To have everything change in a minute was really a shock,” she says.

She doesn’t like to talk about the bombing or losing her friend. Rather, she likes to focus on moving forward and turning the experience into something positive, like helping others who face similar challenges.

A chance conversation in a furniture store last fall led Karen and her husband to learn about Estefania, a 13-year-old girl from El Salvador who lost one leg and was in danger of losing the other after she was hit by a drag-racer. Karen and Kevin arranged for her to receive free surgeries at Shriners Children’s Hospital in Boston, as well as a donated prosthetic leg from Next Step Bionics, which provided Karen with her prosthetic. The couple also raised $15,000 to pay for airfare and living expenses to allow Estefania and her mother to come to Boston for her treatment.

Since Estefania arrived in February, Karen has visited her many times and was there when she took her first steps on her new prosthetic. Also there was ESPN, which profiled Karen and her work with Estefania one year after the bombing.

Although they don’t share a common language, the bond between Karen and Estefania is obvious. Karen flips through photos she’s taken of the teenager and grins. “I just think she’s adorable.”

Speaking Spanish, Estefania told ESPN, “It makes me happy because we have gone through the same thing. And I love that she is always smiling. I am so grateful to her. I love her, and she is my angel.”

Karen plans to continue working with Shriners Hospital to find other children like Estefania in need of medical care, and she’s also volunteered her time with the Red Cross to promote blood drives and fundraisers. The work has helped Karen stay busy and positive during times when she’s struggled in her recovery.

And, despite it all, Karen is remarkably positive. She’s glad to be back in Maine and close to her mother, friends, siblings and one of her two adult sons. She’s happy to be a newlywed, having married Kevin in March at Cambridge City Hall. And she’s looking forward to the day when she can once again walk to the Old Port, or even get back on her bicycle.

“It’s strange how your life changes,” she says. “In spite of the bad thing that happened to me, I’m happy. I’m married, I’m in a new place I love. I can’t complain about anything, that’s for sure.”


By Mindy Woerter, Communications Manager

Spring home maintenance tasks to protect your investment

Spring seems to finally be upon us. This warmer weather may have you dreaming of relaxing outside with a glass of lemonade, but if you’re a homeowner, spring means it’s time for some home maintenance work. Maintenance performed regularly can help maximize the lifespan of your home and its systems and prevent expensive problems and repairs.

Here’s a checklist of tasks you should tackle to keep your home safe and efficient.

Outside

  •    Inspect your gutters. The April showers probably alerted you to any leaks or blockages. Make sure gutters are clear of leaves and debris, and that downspouts are also clear and drain away from your foundation.
  •    Check your roof. From the ground, inspect your roof for any missing, loose or curling shingles, or nails that have popped up. If you spot any problems, contact a professional roofer.
  •    Repair cracks in concrete or asphalt. Winter can be harsh on driveways and walkways, so repair any cracks you find before they get worse and become a hazard. Spring is also a good time to seal your driveway to help extend its life.
  •    If you have a deck, give it a once-over. Decks can also be damaged due to heavy snows like those we had this winter. Check for split or decaying wood, and make sure railings and banisters are secure. If you can take a screwdriver and easily penetrate a board 1/4-1/2 of an inch, break off a sliver without splinters, or if the wood feels soft and spongy, it may be decaying and need replacing. Read more tips for deck maintenance here.
  •    Check doors, windows and trim for finish failure, broken glass and damaged screens. Be sure to check the caulking at doors, windows and all other openings as well as joints between different materials (e.g., wood and masonry).
  •    Check your lawn mower. Make sure your lawn mower starts, change the oil and see if the blades need to be sharpened. You may also want to do a tune-up or hire a professional to do it.

Inside

  •    Check your doors and windows. Check around doors and windows to make sure there are no water leaks or damage. Fill gaps between doors/windows and trim with caulk, install weather stripping or make sure the existing weather stripping has a tight seal. This will help keep the cool air in over the summer if you decide to run an air conditioner.
  •    Inspect your attic and basement. In the attic, make sure there are no signs of pests or animals living there, and look around for signs of roof leaks or water damage. Check your basement for water leaks and ensure your sump pump, if you have one, is working.
  •    If you didn’t change the batteries in your smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors on Daylight Savings Time, then do so now.
  •    Do some spring cleaning. Spring isn’t just a great time to wash your windows. You should also make a habit of checking your washing machine fill hose to make sure it’s not cracked, cleaning your dryer vent of lint, and clean your refrigerator coils to help it run more efficiently.

Your home is a big investment, and regular maintenance protects that investment and helps prevent damage down the road that could cost you money. And once these tasks are done, the lemonade will taste that much sweeter.

By David Stolt, Home Ownership Services Manager

What people are saying about the value of our Homebuyer Education Courses

“I didn’t realize all that was involved with the home buying process, but that has changed by taking this class.”

“More helpful than other homebuyer classes I’ve taken.”

“The best $15 I ever spent.”

We love getting this feedback on the evaluations of our Homebuyer Education Courses. It means we’re succeeding in making sure people enter into homeownership with all the knowledge they need to be successful and to sustain their investment for the long-term. (And yes, our classes are just $15.)

A recent study by NeighborWorks (of which Avesta Housing is a chartered member) found that buyers who go through a pre-purchase counseling program are one-third less likely to fall behind on their mortgage in the first two years of homeownership.

Bri and her fiancé, Chris, recently took the class and used what they learned to buy their first home in Gorham. Here’s what Bri had to say about her experience.

How did you hear about the Homebuyer Education Class?

We got a housing loan through USDA Rural Development and it was a requirement to take this class to get our home mortgage loan. We’re glad it was. 🙂

What did you learn at the class that was the most useful or interesting?

Information on credit and how much it affects the home buying process, and in general a detailed review of all the steps of purchasing a home — there is so much information that we weren’t aware of. Also, learning about programs/loans that assist with home maintenance/making homes more energy efficient.

What did you learn that helped you when you were buying your home?

We were already in the process of purchasing a home when we took this class, so probably just to make sure our credit remained stable, what to look for during inspection, and what’s involved in the closing process.

Would you recommend the class to others?

Definitely! It was interactive and very applicable. David was a great presenter and used a lot of real life examples, which was helpful.

 

Are you looking to buy a home, or just wondering if homeownership makes sense for you? Our next class starts May 13. Click here to register.

By Mindy Woerter, Communications Manager

Why you need to shop around for a mortgage

Interest rates are at a record low, but many borrowers are still reluctant to shop for the best mortgage loan – a decision that could cost them money.

Looking at data from the November 2012 National Housing Survey, Fannie Mae researchers found that close to half of lower-income mortgage borrowers said they did not obtain more than one quote when signing up for their current mortgage.

Comparatively, three out of four higher-income respondents explored competitive offers and said better deals would definitely have an influence on their decisions.

“Although a home purchase is the largest financial obligation most people will ever make, many borrowers do not fully understand their mortgage products and costs,” said Fannie Mae chief economist Doug Duncan. “As a result, some homeowners in this position may find themselves with unsustainable payments down the road.”

Fannie Mae reported that failing to shop around for a mortgage can end up costing borrowers $1,000 or more in closing costs.

As a housing counselor, it’s my job to educate people on the importance of comparative shopping. I encourage clients to attend first-time homebuyers’ workshops as well as one-on-one pre-purchase and post-purchase counseling.

Education is the best way to avoid paying too much for a mortgage. Want to know more? Get in touch with me.

By David Stolt, Home Ownership Services Manager

How to get the most out of your tax refund

 

A recent survey by TD Ameritrade finds nearly half of people expecting a tax refund said they plan to save the money, while 44% intend to pay debt. However, researchers found people tend to spend more of their refund than they anticipate, which means they don’t save as much as they want to, or don’t pay off as much debt as they need to.

Here are some smart ways to use your tax refund to boost your financial health.

Pay off high-interest rate debt, like credit cards

The average credit card interest rate is 15%, and for those with bad credit, it’s close to 24%. The average American household carries $15,000 in credit card debt. Pay down your credit card debt now to save yourself money in interest payments in the future.

Establish or rebuild your emergency fund

It is recommended that you have at least three to six months’ worth of living expenses in savings should you lose your job, get sick or face another challenge that makes it hard or impossible for you to work. Use your tax refund as a starter for this emergency savings fund or to rebuild your emergency fund if it has been depleted.

Set up an Individual Development Account

Individual Development Accounts (IDAs) are matched savings accounts designed to help people with limited income and wealth to save money to buy a home, start a business or get more education. The program provides a match to the funds deposited by the individual. It’s a great idea to use your tax return to start an IDA and start building your assets.

Community Financial Literacy partners with CEI to provide IDAs for immigrants and refugees. CEI also provides IDAs for non-immigrants. Contact CEI or CFL to learn more. A number of organizations in Maine also provide a similar account called Family Development Accounts.

Save for retirement and get a tax credit in return

Have you heard of the “saver’s tax credit”? It’s a federal tax credit that’s available to low- and moderate-income people who make contributions to a 401(k) plan or IRA. The size of the tax credit you are eligible for depends on your income level and how you file your taxes (see the table below).

The credit is applied to contributions of up to $2,000 per person, and the maximum credit amount is $1,000 for individuals and $2,000 for married couples. So, a single filer who makes $25,000 and contributes $2,000 to a 401(k) or IRA will receive a $1,000 tax credit. In addition, the $2,000 contribution will reduce the filer’s tax liability, which saves even more. Deposit your tax refund into a retirement savings plan this year and you will have a tax credit to look forward to next year.

Your employer might also provide a match funds for 401(k) contributions, which is another reason to start saving for retirement today.

Income Range
CreditSingle FilersHead of HouseholdMarried Filing Jointly
50% of contribution$0-$17,750$0-$26,625$0-$35,500
20% of contribution$17,751-$19,250$26,626-$28,875$35,501-$38,500
10% of contribution$19,251-$29,500$28,876-$44,250$38,501-$59,000
No credit availableAbove $29,500Above $44,250Above $59,000

Invest in your home, or save for one

If you own a home, consider using your tax refund to make improvements which may increase your home’s value. A good place to start is to fix any structural issues (like a leaky roof) or mechanical systems. Energy-efficiency upgrades, like replacing leaky windows or adding insulation, not only improve your home’s value but save money in energy costs. You can also pay down the principal balance of your mortgage, which will reduce the amount of interest you will pay over the life of the loan.

If you don’t own a home and are thinking about buying one, use your refund to begin saving for a down payment. Do you have questions about whether home buying is for you, or do you want to learn more about the process? Sign up for one of our homebuyer education classes.

It may seem like a tax refund is free money begging to be spent on a splurge, but if you use your refund wisely, you’ll set yourself up for future financial success.

By David Stolt, Home Ownership Services Manager

Bipartisan report suggests creative approaches to addressing nation’s housing problems

On Feb. 25, the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Housing Commission released its recommendations for changes to national housing policy in a report entitled, “Housing America’s Future: New Directions for National Policy.” It is a comprehensive report that covers a lot of ground – from reforming the housing finance system and improving rural housing, to allowing more seniors to age in place and expanding the availability of affordable housing to people in need.

The report is a culmination of 16 months of research by the commission, which was first established in October 2011 to set a new direction for federal housing policy. The co-chairs are Maine’s own former U.S. Senator George Mitchell, former U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez (R-FL), former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, and former U.S. Sen. Christopher Bond (R-MO).

To provide the framework for their efforts, the commission organized a series of forums with housing professionals and practitioners around the country, including one last summer in Mount Desert Island. Avesta Housing, the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, and other groups provided local support for the forum and offered testimony to the members of the commission. Much of that testimony focused on the dire shortage of housing options for extremely low-income families in Maine.

To address that problem, the commission recommends that our nation transition to a system in which all households with incomes at or below 30% of the area median income are assured access to rental assistance. As it stands now, most of these vulnerable families must wait years to receive a housing voucher, often while living in unhealthy or dangerous conditions.

Other key recommendations for addressing the affordable housing crisis include:

Expanding the Low Income Housing Tax Credit program by 50% over current funding levels, to build up to 400,000 more quality housing units over a 10-year period

Addressing the capital backlog in public housing to improve quality and energy efficiency

Providing short-term emergency assistance to low-income renters (30%-80% of area median income) who suffer temporary setbacks, to ensure stability and prevent homelessness

While much work will be needed to turn these recommendations into reality, there is no question that they represent a thoughtful and important analysis of our country’s most pressing housing problems and how they can be better addressed.

But one of the most lasting legacies of the report may be the support it offers to reforming the way our country’s tax code treats the homeownership and rental housing sectors. Specifically, the report states, “the commission recommends consideration of further modifications to federal tax incentives for homeownership to allow for an increase in the level of support provided to affordable rental housing…. A portion of any revenue generated in changes in tax subsidies for homeownership should be devoted to expanding support for rental housing programs for low-income populations in need of affordable housing.”

Such a reform of America’s tax code represents perhaps our greatest opportunity for ending homelessness and addressing America’s worst-case housing needs. Lowering the cap on the amount of mortgage for which interest can be deducted — from $1,000,000 to $500,000 — and converting the tax deduction to a 15% non-refundable tax credit would assist 16 million more low- and moderate-income homeowners who do not currently benefit from the mortgage interest deduction. It would also save $200 billion over 10 years — money that could be used to end homelessness and provide rental assistance to those with the greatest rental housing needs.

The engagement on such a critical tax fairness issue by the moderate, well-respected voices at the Bipartisan Policy Center comes at a particularly important time, as members of Congress prepare to file legislation that would affect precisely the kind of change to the tax code that the report recommends.

Stay tuned for more on this topic in the coming weeks.


By Greg Payne, Development Officer/Coordinator, Maine Affordable Housing Coalition