Ronald Jose, holding 16-month-old daughter Riley, stands outside the Makaha house that he and his wife, Amelia, purchased last month for $210,000. They were the 100th successful homebuyer assisted by the Hawaii HomeOwnerswhip Center.

Unlocking the door
to affordable housing

The Hawaii HomeOwnership Center,
which just assisted its 100th successful
homebuyer, is planning to quadruple
that number in the next three years

Amelia and Ronald Jose of Makaha bought the lowest-priced, single-family home in the Oahu market last month, but even that was a stretch for the young family, who never thought they would be able to own a house in Hawaii's economy.

Tools for first-time

» Set realistic goals and always keep them in sight.
» Shore up your finances by eliminating debt and reducing expenses.
» Before you shop for the right house, shop for the right Realtor and lender.
» Sign up for the Hawaii HomeOwnership Center's 8-hour homebuyer class and one-on-one counseling. To enroll, call 523-9500.
» Expand your home ownership options by exploring grants, low-cost housing programs and creative lending.

"It was difficult with the prices and we really didn't think that we would find a home ," said 25-year-old Amelia, who along with her husband paid $210,000, or about $248 a square foot, for the Hana Street plantation-style house.

The couple, who closed on their house July 1, is the 100th family to be assisted by the Hawaii HomeOwnership Center, a start-up nonprofit that helps first-time homebuyers become participants in the state's challenging real estate market.

The center, which was officially chartered as the 236th local affiliate for NeighborWorks America on Tuesday, is now launching an aggressive campaign to expand its services. It provides homebuyer education, financial literacy training, referrals to professional real estate services and post-purchase counseling.

Nearly 1,200 people have completed the center's orientation program since it opened in 2003 and 100 of those have been able to purchase homes and condominiums, ranging in price from the $70,000s to the mid-$400,000s.

"During the next three years, we expect to provide services to more than 3,500 first-time homebuyers with more than 400 of them actually realizing the dream of owning their own home," said Kendall J. Hirai, executive director of the Hawaii HomeOwnership Center.

That's a tall order given the challenges of purchasing real estate in Hawaii's desirable market. While low interest rates and easier lending standards have expanded the reach of low-to-moderate income families, the state's rapidly rising prices and high cost of living relative to income have made it difficult for many to enter the market. Some first-time buyers have too little income relative to their expenses, others have credit problems, and few can come up with a sizable down payment.

"I cringe when I think about what's happening in the market right now," said Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona, who represented the administration at the center's chartering ceremony.

"I'm not sure I could purchase a home right now," said Aiona, who lives in Kapolei, one of Oahu's fastest-growing markets.

"If I sold my home and I made some money; I don't know where I would go," he said, adding that in recent times affordable housing has become one of the state's top priorities.

Aiona praised the Hawaii HomeOwnership Center for its work to date and said he expects to see further opportunities spring from its new-found affiliation with NeighborWorks America.

Lehua Rosa Malott, a counselor at the Hawaii HomeOwnership Center, carries a credit card-sized note that says, "Stop!!! Think About It Before You Spend!" Her self-control helped her buy a house.

New homeowners Amelia and Ronald Jose, foreground, were all smiles after receiving keys to their new home at the Plaza Club Tuesday from Lt. Gov. James "Duke"Aiona, back left, and Federal Reserve Gov. Edward Gramlich.

Federal Reserve Gov. Edward Gramlich, the former chair of NeighborWorks America, said Tuesday during his remarks at the center's chartering ceremony that the nonprofit already has made a good start.

"The rate of homeowners that they've helped seems to be increasing and Hawaii, as every one knows, is not an easy place to do affordable housing programs," Gramlich said.

Gramlich touted nonprofit subsidy programs like NeighborWorks America as an alternative to government-built housing programs. Across the country, the organization is working in more than 3,000 communities and during the past five years has put $8.5 billion into housing support.

"We give out money to the local affiliates and for every dollar that we've put out, they've gotten $17 more in housing support," Gramlich said.

Continued community support for the Hawaii HomeOwnership Center will be vital for its future, Hirai said.

Helping first-time homebuyers find an affordable house has become more daunting with each year that the center has been in existence, he said.

"Since opening the center, there has been a 50 percent increase in home prices in less than two years," Hirai said. "How many of us got paid that much?"

Though the price of an existing home in the United States rose in June to $219,000, an almost 15 percent year-over-year increase, most mainland buyers will get little sympathy from Hawaii residents.

Oahu's own median home price, which dropped slightly to $593,000 in June, has grown an even more dramatic 23.3 percent from the prior year, according to the Honolulu Board of Realtors' most recent data.

Not surprisingly, given the price differential between the national median and the price to purchase a home in Hawaii, homeownership rates on the islands trail.

Homeownership rates on Oahu have averaged about 55 percent over the past 10 years in contrast to the national average of 65 percent, Hirai said.

Still, an estimated 27,000 households who rent on Oahu could qualify for a mortgage and another 13,000 would be eligible if they reduced their debt level, he said.

Some of those people could benefit if they turned to the Hawaii Home Ownership Center and counselors like Lehua Rosa Malott, said Amelia Jose.

"We've become an advocate of the Hawaii HomeOwnership Center because it makes that spark of a dream a reality," Jose said.

A once-struggling ice addict, Rosa Malott now works as a counselor at the Hawaii HomeOwnership Center and is the proud owner of a condo in Kalihi and a home in Makaha.

Rosa Malott, whose office is decorated with goal sheets encouraging clients to keep their eye on the prize, freely distributes common-sense advice designed to encourage prospective homeowners to empower themselves.

At the beginning of her fast journey up, Malott said she took a minute to identify her goals and wrote them on a piece of paper.

"I put my goals in front of me because I wanted to reach them," she said, adding that at first the things on her list: a house, a new car, matching bedroom furniture, braces and a trip to Disneyland for her family, seemed impossible.

"It wasn't easy, I didn't buy any new clothes for two years and I limited my children to one $20 dinner out a month at McDonald's," she said.

But within five years, Malott had made all her dreams come true. Now, she said she enjoys working at the Hawaii HomeOwnership Center where she can help others do the same.

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