Blia and new ACTS Homeowners.
Blia farming at her central city Milwaukee home.
Homegrown green beans cultivated by Blia.
Blia with ACTS Homeowners Pastor Lee and his wife at the ACTS Longest Table 2016 Event
In 1993, Blia heard about members of her church purchasing homes from the City of Milwaukee for only $1, condemned foreclosures that they rehabbed. Blia already owned a home, but she was interested: “I thought, $1, that’s a pretty good deal, I can do that.” Now, 23 years later, Blia is retiring as an iconic figure in ACTS Housing history after helping 792 families become homeowners.
Blia called ACTS Housing co-founder John Worm about one boarded up house, but $1 homes were not available to existing homeowners. Since Blia and her husband were church leaders, she knew a lot of people who would be interested in the home and she made some calls.
So many families came to see that first foreclosed house that John asked Blia if she wanted to get into real estate, helping other families purchase and reclaim homes. She agreed, and the rest is history.
When Blia first started at ACTS, she had very little formal education, having not finished high school or even used a computer. She credits her success to the guidance and support given to her by John Worm, who encouraged her to first learn the skills needed for the position, and later to study for her real estate license. John, on the other hand, explained, “I learned more from Blia than she could ever have learned from me.”
Blia has loved being a part of ACTS Housing because she feels that she makes a genuine impact on the lives of the families who she works with: “I like to encourage people to buy their own home, so they can stop calling landlords, take control of the situation, and just fix any problems themselves.”
Through selling homes to families in the central city, Blia feels that the neighborhood is improving. She explains how when she first moved to Milwaukee, there were not many people in the area who owned their own homes. Now she has sold nearly 800 homes in ACTS’ Central neighborhood to families who make it a better place. She tells families she will call them if another house on their block goes on the market: “That way,” she says, “they can know that they will have good neighbors, and help watch for each other’s homes.”
Blia has two main goals for retirement: travel, and farming. She wants to travel all across the world to learn about the different farming techniques that fellow Hmong refugees are using, including: Alaska, to learn how to catch fish with nets in the north Pacific; Australia, to visit a giant banana farm she saw on YouTube, run entirely by Hmong refugees; and to French Guyana, where other Hmong people are farming on land that everyone else said could not be cultivated. Perhaps the most interesting thing Blia plans to do in retirement is to raise chickens in her Milwaukee backyard: “In Laos, a farmer without any animals is not a farmer- so if I only farm vegetables, I am not complete as a farmer.”
ACTS is thankful for Blia’s 23 years of service. If she applies even an ounce of the tenacity, compassion, cunning and dedication she’s shown at ACTS to her retirement activities – Watch out, Milwaukee may soon be overrun by chickens.
When you enter Brenda Brown’s office, one of the first things you see is a decorative quote on the wall that reads: “begin each day with a grateful heart.” It is clear by her bubbly personality and warm smile that this is a mantra she takes seriously: she is a person who lives her life full of gratitude.
ACTS won a contract with the City of Milwaukee to staff the City’s lease-to-own program. Brenda Brown, an ACTS Housing counselor operates the program for the City, Brenda recently took over the position from Coretta Herring, who has moved on to be a full time realtor with ACTS Housing (see picture below).
Coretta “hands off” her family files to Brenda
Brenda explained the City of Milwaukee’s Lease to Own program to me first: it is a program designed to help families and individuals that find themselves in an challenging predicament. When a landlord, for whatever reason, stops paying taxes on the property, the property is foreclosed on by the city. The property sometimes still has tenants in it, often tenants that have been paying their rent. The City’s real estate team goes and meets with the families to make sure the house is decent and habitable. If it is, they ask the tenant if s/he would like to continue living there, most tenants say yes. Tenants then sign a contract with the city to continue renting from the city and are then given the first chance to purchase the home for $1.
This is where Brenda comes in. She explained her role:
“I work with them to transition from being a renter to homeowner. It’s my job to analyze the situation, help them understand this is a golden opportunity, and help make it happen. I help fix any judgments, collections, and talk to people about money management.” It’s not all financial, Brenda also talks with families about the big picture of homeownership, and what it can all mean: “I ask them, where do you see yourself in the next 3 to 5 years? What are some stories you can tell me about you and your family that are positive since you’ve been in this house?”
Brenda explains that all counseling is done on a one on one basis, since every family is different. Tenants in the program pay their bills, property taxes and get homeowners insurance, and are able to own the home without a mortgage.
Brenda Brown, ACTS Financial Counselor
Delving into the world of personal finance and mortgages may be daunting to some, but for Brenda, it has been a challenging and rewarding career. She started her career owning a cleaning company years ago, becoming a banker, working at a mortgage company for seven years, right up until the foreclosure crisis in 2008. At that point, Brenda explained: “I thought, ‘uh oh’ I couldn’t even get families approved for a basic FHA mortgage. It was a tough time.” Brenda left the world of mortgages to help counsel families facing foreclosure: “I argued with banks, advocated for families to stay in their homes and went to Court with families for their foreclosure hearings. I helped a lot of people stay in their homes but I had to help a lot of people transition out. My heart was broken.” After an inability to approve mortgages, and counseling families through foreclosure, Brenda says she feels her career has come full circle: “This job shows me the flip side, a different way, how the foreclosure turned out to be a little brighter for some families.” Brenda’s focus on the families she works with is admirable. When she began working for the City’s Lease to Own Program, she had 46 families.
The first thing she did was schedule a meeting with every single family.
Hearing Brenda talk about her career and her work is inspiring. For her, it has been a journey, with one common thread throughout: to help people,
“I have no fear about what my purpose in life is. I’m very clear on what my assignment is – it is to serve others. That’s what my assignment is, and it has been for a very long time.”
We are thankful to have Brenda living out this purpose in service to ACTS families.
Tax Season Again – Google Images
‘Tis the season: Tax season. For some of us it can mean a welcome relief, a little extra money in our pockets. For others it is added stress and work on already over loaded plates. ACTS Housing Specialist Mary Leach-Sumlin gives some great advice on what to do – and what not to do – this tax season, when it comes to tax preparation and tax refunds. Here’s what she had to say:
I had never heard of a rapid refund, so I asked Mary for clarification. She explained: “You get the refund the same day you apply for your taxes, they give you a loan against it but then when you get your refund they take your money back.” Mary suggests, even though budgets are tight, wait to get your refund check in the mail or direct deposit. That way you can maximize your refund. She explained,
“When people get rapid refunds, that’s a poor way to spend $300-500 or more of your tax refund, pretty much giving it away to get your money a few days earlier.”
Mary Leach-Sumlin gives advice for tax season
We all see the commercials this time of year for various tax preparation agencies. Many of these agencies charge to prepare your taxes, or at least take a portion of your refund. Mary explains, “you can even get charged per form at some tax preparation sites, if you don’t need to – don’t use them.”
For folks who are on a tight budget, this can really be a strain. Mary suggests checking out the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) programs in Milwaukee. If your household income is under $54,000 annually, VITA sites will prepare your tax returns for free.
Check out the City of Milwaukee’s Tax Prep Info site: http://county.milwaukee.gov/TaxPrepInfo.htm or call 211 to get information on where you can get your taxes prepared for free.
Spending your Tax Refund
A lot of us are tempted, when we have some extra spending money, to spend it right away. Mary suggests a few different ways to use your tax refund in a smart way, including:
- Open or add to a savings account
- Consider a home purchase – many ACTS families use their refund as a down payment on a foreclosed home, or for needed home repair.
The biggest pitfall, according to Mary, are the tax refund sales that come out around this time of year: “Avoid the tax refund sales—things often go on ‘sale’ during this time of year, but often times things are inflated because people know there is money out there.”
In short, plan, plan plan. Have a plan for where you can get your taxes prepared in a cost-efficient way, have a plan for how you are going to save some and spend some, and be sure to plan on avoiding those “tax refund sales.”
Image courtesy of Google
As a younger, newly married Milwaukeean, home ownership has been on my mind quite a lot. I would love to own my own home, with a yard for my dog, a living room for friends, a kitchen for messy meals, but I have to admit: I’m scared! If there is anything I’ve learned working for ACTS Housing it’s that home ownership takes a lot of work. I recently spoke with Coretta Herring, ACTS Housing’s newest realtor and previous financial counselor, and shared some of my fears about the process and I have to admit – I’m not nearly as scared anymore.
After I shared some of my fears, Coretta told me,
“Home ownership is a journey, and every journey begins with the first step. Just questioning me, or having a conversation with me is a first step. Let’s take a look at where we are and where we need to be and go from there.”
Well, that’s not so scary – Coretta explained that when she meets with families for the first time, she breaks down the work into manageable “chunks,” and maps out a pathway to home ownership. They walk together through what needs to be done, what’s easiest to tackle first, and what might take a little more time. The best part, Coretta explained, “Even if it takes two years, I’m going to be right there with you.”
ACTS realtor Coretta Herring
Coretta shared with me some fears that individuals and families have, fears that prevent them from taking the first step. One common fear is that, “I’m not ready.” For this fear, Coretta answered, “Leave it to the experts…It’s my job to get you ready! We’ll give you an action plan to get you in the right direction and we can triage the situation.” For Coretta, “being ready” is a myth. No one ever really feels ready for home ownership, but you take the first step and get yourself ready.
Another common fear is taking a look at the skeletons in the closet. Coretta explained this fear with an analogy: “It’s like getting a bill in the mail. When you get a bill in the mail that you know you can’t pay, you know it’s a bill, you know you have to pay it, but sometimes you just kinda don’t look at it and hope that it will go away.” Unfortunately, as we all know too well, those bills won’t just go away. Facing debt, credit problems, spending problems, head on is the only way to stay in front of them. Talking about money and digging up sensitive financial data can be anxiety-provoking (you know, I don’t really need anyone to see that I spent $75 on pizza last month.)
Coretta explained that you shouldn’t be nervous to have someone else looking at your financials. Here’s what she told me about checking out credit reports:
“Anybody’s credit report I look at, I never make them feel like it’s really really bad. I personally believe that every credit report can be repaired. Maybe a payment arrangement, maybe bankruptcy and getting a fresh start. I’ve never seen a credit report and thought, ‘ain’t no way in the world …’ if you’re motivated and dedicated to the process, we’re going to get there. It’s like weathering a storm. It even gets exciting, it gets addicting. Every step of the way: pay this collection, pay this collection, and then your car breaks down, we slip, we fell, something happens, let’s get back at it.”
As a financial coach for many years, and now a licensed realtor, Coretta is in an expert position to help families succeed in home ownership. Not only does she have knowledge the average person doesn’t, she cares deeply for her families and works just as hard as they do, “I am really hands on. I come with a lot of energy. I work closely with my team to get my families connected to resources and grants to seal the deal.” Coretta explained that her goal is to give families and individuals the tools and resources they need to be successful. She doesn’t stop there – she has monthly contact with all of her families
After speaking with Coretta, my fear was upgraded to reasonable apprehension. Everyone should be a little nervous about home ownership, it is a big deal, but don’t let fear keep you from achieving your dreams. Especially with someone like Coretta at bat for you, you can rest easier.
To conclude using the words of the energetic, passionate Coretta: “Let’s get to work!”
If you’d like to get started with Coretta, or other ACTS team members, attend the next Homebuyers Club! Call 414-933-2215 for more information.
Winter is not a popular time to purchase a home. But why? ACTS Housing Specialist Blia Cha took some time to explain to me the advantages and disadvantages of buying a home in winter.
Winter brings some unique challenges to purchasing a home. For one, it’s harder to travel with snow and ice on the road. It also gets dark early, so it’s hard to really see a home.
Another challenge, which is not often explained, is the winterization process that occurs with vacant homes. Blia explained that most of the bank foreclosed homes between Nov 1st and Apr 30th are “winterized.” This means that water and gas are shut off, and potential buyers may have to visit a home without heat or running water. Furthermore, in order to close on financing a home, you will need to reverse this winterization for inspection and appraisal purposes. Some foreclosures will not allow you to have the utilities turned back on for these purposes, some will, but it is at the buyers’ cost.
Blia encourages her winter buyers to know up front that they may incur this extra cost. Often, in the offer, Blia will ask the seller to turn utilities on for the buyer’s inspection. If the seller is on the private market, or the home is occupied, this winterization will not be a problem. For Blia, going into the deal with your eyes wide open and really knowing the property is of the utmost importance, regardless of the season, “know your credit, and know the condition of the property. You have to do a lot of preparation work to actually get to closing…It takes time. For example, one of my buyers has written offers for four different homes before he can close on one home.”
Photo from www.lushome.com
While winter certainly presents icy obstacles, there are also some benefits to purchasing in the winter. Blia explained that since less people are eager to buy a home in the winter, prices are often lower, and there is less competition. This can really work to the buyer’s advantage: “Price and location always drive the deal,” Blia explained, “everybody’s needs are different based on their priority. Is it price? Or location?”
At the end of the conversation, I asked Blia right out – is winter a good time to buy a home? Her response:
“If you’re willing to go the extra mile, we can help you find the deal. Any time is a good time to buy, and good deals are all year round.”
We don’t have to tell you how cold it is in Milwaukee in January, but lets keep the cold where it belongs: outside! ACTS rehab specialist Ramon has a few tips for how to keep your home warm in the winter. The best news? These weatherization tips all cost less than $20.
1) Check all of your weather stripping: If you look closely at your exterior doors, you will notice foam rubber strips at the base, along the sides and at the tops. This stripping should be installed in all cracks. The foam works to keep cold air and frost out when your door is shut. Don’t see any weather stripping? You may be susceptible to cold creeping in. CLICK HERE for a free guide on how to install weather stripping around your doors and windows. You can purchase supplies for weather stripping at most hardware stores, and it’s an easy fix.
2) Caulk Drafty Windows: Do you feel a cold draft coming in around the edges of your windows? Similar to weather stripping, the cracks around windows are a great place for winter to come in for an unwelcome visit. A simple tube of silicon caulk, and a caulk gun can be purchased at most hardware stores for less than $20. Apply the caulk to the cracks of your windows to keep the cold out. Be careful to use the right caulk, and don’t caulk the windows shut. CLICK HERE for a great guide on selecting caulk and caulking cracks.
3) Check your basement and attic: Your house loses a lot of its heat through the basement and the attic. Since these areas are less populated, there is less opportunity for people to realize how cold it truly is. Pick up some foam sealer. Spray the foam into cracks in your attic, the edges of your roof, cracks in your foundation and gaps in unfinished basement walls. Foam sealer does expand, so be carefully and use sparingly! Also check your foundation from the outside. If it is missing grout, be sure to re-grout or apply foam sealer to cracks. Water and air can freeze and invade foundation cracks. CLICK HERE to watch a video on where and how to use foam sealer.
4) Check your dryer vents: Do you have a washer and dryer in your home? If yes, dryer vents can often go overlooked. Check to see if your dryer vent can be opened and closed. If not, this can be a significant source of heat loss. If your dryer vent is stuck open, either because it is old or dusty, you should clean it, fix it or replace it.
5) Install window plastic: Can’t afford state-of-the art energy-efficient windows? Like the look of your beautiful old windows but are noticing a draft? Most local hardware stores carry window plastic. This is installed with a special sealer, and usually heated up and straightened out using a standard hair dryer. Be sure to purchase the right kind of plastic and follow the instructions carefully. CHECK OUT this video for how to properly install plastic.
We hope these tips will help keep you and your family warm this winter! Thanks for reading.