They are the members of “LIFT nation” — the office workers, teachers, housekeepers, retirees, pizza makers, and others with average or below-average incomes from across the U.S., many of whom wondered whether they’d ever be able to buy a home.
Today, however, they are homeowners, thanks to NeighborhoodLIFT®, a major housing assistance program, which along with other LIFT programs comprises the largest philanthropic effort of its kind in Wells Fargo history. Thousands of homebuyers have been helped since the LIFT initiative was launched in 2012 by Wells Fargo and the NeighborWorks® America nonprofit.
Through down payment assistance, homebuyer education, and a $340 million investment by Wells Fargo, LIFT programs to date have made homeownership a reality for more than 13,250 individuals and families, according to Wells Fargo and NeighborWorks data.
A special Christmas
LIFT’s down payment assistance paved the way for Jessi Burke, of San Diego, and her husband Jared, to buy their first home. That purchase ended a decade of frustration in which the couple found themselves repeatedly shut out of homeownership, both during and after the financial crisis, she said.
“We didn’t have much for a down payment, and it seemed everything we wanted would get bought up by investors. We couldn’t compete with them,” Burke said. “When our Wells Fargo home mortgage consultant told us we could qualify for down payment assistance through this LIFT program, it sounded too good to be true.”
Boosted by the assistance, Burke and her family found the right home, were approved for the mortgage, and moved in just before Christmas of 2016. “It was definitely a special Christmas for us,” Burke said.
A standout in the financial services industry
The LIFT program has held 50 outreach events for prospective homeowners from New York to California in the past five years. Providing real and lasting help to cash-strapped homebuyers makes the initiative stand out in the marketplace, according to nonprofit officials.
“In our community, the impact of LIFT has been phenomenal,” said Michelle Merced, executive director of Neighborhood Housing Services of Southern Nevada, a nonprofit in Las Vegas, where the 50th LIFT launch event took place in March. “We work with clients every day whose lives have been changed by this program. We have no idea why other institutions have not adopted it.”
While other financial institutions have their own down payment assistance programs for lower income homebuyers, LIFT is unique in its multi-faceted approach: It offers them a combination of down payment help, financial education, and local volunteerism in support of neighborhood revitalization, said Martin Sundquist, executive director of the Wells Fargo Housing Foundation, which leads the LIFT program.
Also, Wells Fargo is not the exclusive home lender for LIFT programs – other participating lenders are eligible to make a home loan to prospective LIFT grant recipients, so that allows homebuyers to shop around for the best deal available, he said.
“We believe that nobody has done this kind of broad-based program or has been successful at replicating it,” Sundquist said. “We’re behind this effort 100 percent. We are part of the communities, and we show up in force. We bring philanthropy, grant support, team member support, and financial education.
“We also bring the business side, for those who want to do business with us, though it is not a requirement,” he added. “We bring in other lenders to be part of it — more than 200 of them since LIFT’s inception. Other financial institutions have told me, ‘We’re glad you’re doing this. It opens up the marketplace and creates new opportunities.’ So LIFT is good for the industry, in general.”
“It felt unbelievable”
Linda Lueck, of Las Vegas, said the NeighborhoodLIFT program gave her hope that she could once again buy a home. Legally blind since the age of 7, the former disability services advisor had been renting for years.
“It was hard to imagine if I could ever afford a home with the market going as crazy at it’s going here,” said Lueck, who attended the March 4 LIFT event in Las Vegas and qualified for a down payment assistance grant. “It was only with an additional program like this that I’m able to buy any kind of home. Now I can go start looking for one.”
Sidney Sharif, a retired Chicago police officer, had a winning moment five years ago when he and his wife attended Las Vegas’ first NeighborhoodLIFT event where they also qualified for down payment assistance.
“Honestly, it felt unbelievable,” he said. “It later turned out to be true, but it was unbelievable. We finally realized our ship had come in.”
Sharif said they found a home that was just right for the couple and financed it through a home mortgage with Wells Fargo.
Positive results – like those experienced by Lueck and Sharif – have fueled the program’s success, said Paul Weech, NeighborWorks America’s president.
“It is just extraordinary when we are able to see the look on people’s faces when they have been approved for a mortgage and down payment assistance,” Weech said. “It’s what makes getting out of bed in the morning easy.”
“Now that dream is complete”
Watch a one-minute video about how a team of Wells Fargo volunteers brightened a North Las Vegas playground as part of the 50th LIFT event.
Ateny Ajak, of Las Vegas, credits LIFT with changing his family’s life five years ago. More than 25 years after being rescued as a child from Sudan during the civil war in that country, Ajak was working as a hotel housekeeping manager, when he and his wife needed down payment assistance to buy their first home.
“This program made a big difference in our lives and made our home loan affordable,” said Ajak, who was hired six months ago as a Wells Fargo mortgage sales specialist. “I hope many others get this opportunity as well and they will be as happy as we are. When I came to the U.S., I was told the American dream was to have a wife, a car, and your own home. Well, now that is complete for me, and I couldn’t be more grateful.”