Nobody would have called Penny the cat very lucky when she was found in an empty lot behind an animal shelter. Sick, emaciated, and lost, she caught the eye of a staff member, who brought her to safety.
Soon, however, she would become fast pals with Mojo, Yam, and Thor — a trio of lizards also given up by their owners. They all found their forever homes with Anna Johnson.
Johnson, 23, has made it her career and mission to help lost and abandoned animals. Now, the first-time homebuyer has a place to call her own where she can care for her adopted brood. She bought her modest one-bedroom, one-bath condo last fall.
“It’s pretty small, but it’s perfect for me,” said the animal shelter specialist in Denver. “I love it — and my cat and the lizards love it, too.”
Younger homeowners are a ‘source of optimism’
As a newcomer to homeownership, Johnson represents the face of today and the future for the U.S. housing industry. A surge in the number of millennial homebuyers (ages 18 to 35) helped fuel an increase in the homeownership rate last year for the first time in 13 years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau (PDF).
Combined with the increase in Generation X homebuyers (roughly ages 35 to 44), younger homeowners helped push the homeownership rate to 64.2 percent in 2017 — up from 63.7 percent in 2016, census figures show.
“Increases in homeownership among these two cohorts are a sign that the scars of the Great Recession are finally starting to heal,” said economist Ralph McLaughlin on the Trulia real estate blog. “They provide a source of optimism that the owner-occupied segment of the housing market will continue to grow throughout the remainder of this economic cycle.”
‘A homeowner’s hopes fulfilled’
For Johnson, being able to buy a home was less about macroeconomics and more about hard work, timing, and a little luck. Because of budget cuts, she was laid off from her first job after college as a visitor information specialist for the U.S. Forest Service. She gave up her apartment and had no choice but to move back in with her parents. After a year, she was ready to be on her own again — and her parents wanted to help her, she said.
John Collins, a home mortgage consultant for Wells Fargo, was ready to help, too. He was working with the Johnsons on some home financing transactions when they told him about their bright, idealistic, hard-working daughter and her hopes to buy a home.
“She sounded like such a great person. I told them to tell her I would help her,” Collins said. “I was confident we could find a way.”
In fact, he eventually found multiple ways to help Johnson. The first was through NeighborhoodLIFT®, a Wells Fargo program implemented in collaboration with NeighborWorks® America that provides down payment assistance and homeowner education to qualified low- and moderate-income homebuyers. It has created nearly 17,000 homeowners since 2012. Wells Fargo has set a target of $75 million for the program in 2018, doubling the amount of 2017 funding. In all, the company has invested $372 million in LIFT, which allows homebuyers to obtain financing from any participating lender.
Johnson also qualified for yourFirst Mortgage®, which offers affordable down payments (as low as 3 percent), a closing cost credit for those who take a homeowner education course, and other features that reduce the loan costs for homebuyers of modest means. More than 40,000 customers have qualified since the program’s inception in May 2016.
Johnson also used yourLoanTrackerSM, an online tool that appeals to tech-savvy customers by providing loan applicants a convenient portal to upload their documents, track the progress of their application, and communicate with Wells Fargo through a secure email.
“All of this together made the homebuying process a lot less intimidating,” Johnson said. “For the first time, I had the feeling of ‘Wow! Maybe I can actually do this.’”
Johnson’s homebuying experience fulfills all the efforts Wells Fargo has made to reach millennials and other first-time homebuyers, company officials said.
“We are thrilled to help Anna Johnson benefit from the many features Wells Fargo has put in place in recent years to encourage and increase first-time homeownership, especially among younger homebuyers who are now seeing opportunities in the marketplace,” said Michael DeVito, head of Wells Fargo Home Lending.
“Her story connects all the dots — from the home mortgage consultant’s personal customer service to the financial features of the programs, and the convenience of technology,” he added. “It all adds up to a homeowner’s hopes fulfilled.”
These days, Johnson works six days a week, including part-time as a shipping clerk at a warehouse and her full-time job at the Dumb Friends League in Denver, a nonprofit animal shelter created in 1912 and named after England’s historic 19th century agency, Our Dumb Friends League. She was recognized as the shelter’s employee of the month in February.
While being a first-time homeowner is still new to her, Johnson said the best part of it is being able to provide a home for animals in need. Her cat Penny, for example, was found abandoned behind the Denver shelter. Johnson took care of Penny in the shelter and later adopted the feline. She also adopted Yam and Mojo, her bearded dragon lizards, and Thor the gecko after their owners gave them up.
As one of the shelter’s “gatekeepers” — pet admissions specialists — Johnson said she and her colleagues have a multifaceted job that includes helping the animals get healthy, finding them new homes, reuniting lost ones with their owners, and helping distressed owners cope with having to give up their beloved pets.
“We try very hard to remove the stigma when owners have to relinquish their pets,” she said. “In most cases, the animals we receive have been well loved and cared for. Usually, the reason families have to give them up is very understandable, and most just have a very difficult time saying goodbye to a furry friend.”
Meanwhile, Johnson is always on the lookout for the right opportunity to adopt “special” animals that capture her heart.
“I’ve always loved all kinds of animals since I was a kid,” she said. “As a teen, I volunteered at the zoo and all the keepers and vets told me about their passion for their work. So I was sold. I couldn’t wait to pursue a career helping animals and getting paid for what I loved doing. I couldn’t wait to be excited to go to work every morning.”