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Washington D.C., police officer Romell Johnson stands, smiles, and celebrates with three of his sons, fiancée Monique Noel and two of her daughters, outside their new home in suburban Prince George’s County, Maryland.
Washington, D.C., police officer Romell Johnson, center, with fiancee Monique Noel, second from right, outside their new home in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Joining them are Johnson’s sons Jabari, Amari, and Rashaud, and Noel’s daughters Tatiana and Brianna.

Addressing housing affordability in the nation’s capital

As housing prices in Washington, D.C., have skyrocketed, many residents have turned to nearby suburbs to find affordable housing. NeighborhoodLIFT is helping boost their hopes of homeownership.

Police officers patrol the nation’s capital, firefighters protect it, and teachers educate the children who hold its future. Few, however, can afford to live in Washington, D.C.

At a median price of $550,000, homes in the uber-expensive city limits cost far more than a typical middle-class household can afford, much less a lower-income household, American University reported in May, citing data from Zillow and HUD.

Not surprisingly, many workers have flocked to the Washington suburbs, where they have a better chance at affording a home or apartment, said Jake Powell, director of homeownership for Community Housing Partners, a nonprofit that teams with Wells Fargo and NeighborWorks® America to promote housing affordability.

Romell Johnson, a veteran Washington, D.C., police officer, recently became a first-time homeowner with the help of Wells Fargo’s NeighborhoodLIFT program. (2:04 minutes)

Earlier this year, Powell’s agency worked with Wells Fargo’s NeighborhoodLIFT® program, which committed $7.1 million in down payment assistance and homeowner education to eligible low- and moderate-income homebuyers in Washington, D.C., and Prince George’s County, Maryland. The program aims to create 270 homeowners through early 2020.

Homebuyers in the program could receive grants worth up to $20,000 in down payment assistance. Teachers, veterans, police officers, and other first responders are eligible for an additional $2,500.

“Our teachers, police, and other first responders who are doing incredible things in the community should be able to live where they serve,” Powell said. “But they face real challenges from an affordability standpoint. When we are able to give them a step up and open that door for them, it’s great for the individuals, their neighbors, and the community.”

For Romell Johnson, a LIFT down payment grant helped pave the way to first-time homeownership. After more than a decade in law enforcement, working extra shifts to make ends meet, the Washington, D.C., police officer bought a home in June in Prince George’s County. The experience has been nothing short of life changing, he said.

Photo of a line of row houses of different colors & styles. It has 2 lines of text, one dissolving into the next. Text #1 says, “Total in D.C. area NeighborhoodLIFT: $7.1 million in 2019” Text #2 says, “Impact: Create 250 homeowners by early 2020.

Johnson, 36, his fiancee, and three of their children had been living in an apartment while saving money for a home. In June, he and his fiancee surprised all seven of their children — including four in college — with an unveiling of the new home. Now, they have plenty of room and “our wedding plans have accelerated,” he said.

“Sometimes, it’s just hard to believe all of this has happened,” said Johnson, who is part of the Washington police team at the National Archives Research Center, near the National Mall. “I grew up in D.C., and it’s pretty expensive here. Owning a home has always been a dream that I figured might never come true.”

Romell Johnson and fiancee Monique Noel raise their arms, laugh, and celebrate in the doorway of their new home.
Romell Johnson and fiancee Monique Noel celebrate their new home.

Since its inception in 2012, NeighborhoodLIFT and other related LIFT programs have invested $500 million across the U.S. to help create more than 22,000 homeowners through 78 events, according to data from the Wells Fargo Foundation, the company’s philanthropic arm. In June, the company announced a commitment to donate $1 billion through 2025 to affordable housing efforts, including the LIFT programs.

“Sometimes, it’s just hard to believe all of this has happened. I grew up in D.C., and it’s pretty expensive here. Owning a home has always been a dream that I figured might never come true.”

— Romell Johnson

“Romell Johnson’s experience demonstrates the real difference NeighborhoodLIFT has made in tens of thousands of lives across the country, including first responders,” said Kim Smith-Moore, Wells Fargo’s national LIFT programs manager. “It has empowered them financially and equipped them through education to become homeowners who have sustainable staying power.”

With help from LIFT programs, homeowners have bought homes in nearly 900 U.S. cities, towns, and counties in 39 states, financing real estate worth more than $3.36 billion through Wells Fargo or other lenders that participate in LIFT, Smith-Moore said.

From a customer service standpoint, the LIFT program’s track record is impressive, said Shawanda Robinson of Keller Williams Preferred Properties, Johnson’s real estate agent. The process is seamless, closings are on time, and, in some cases, homebuyers receive money back at closing because the required down payments were lower than expected, said Robinson, who counts several LIFT recipients among her clients.

“Romell was wonderful to work with,” she said. “He and his fiancee are some of my favorite customers. You could just see how much they loved and cared for each other and how much they wanted to get the right place for the children.”

Johnson said the children are delighted with the new home and impressed at how his hard work has paid off — a source of great pride for him.

“It really makes me feel great that this has really changed the kids’ perspective on buying a home,” he said. “The fact that you can really work hard, save, and own your own place. It gives them a goal and hope for their own lives.”

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