Simply stated, New Orleans Neighborhood Development Foundation (NDF), via four three-hour sessions, empowers anyone wishing to own his/her own home with all the tools necessary to achieve his/her dream. According to Fred Johnson, CEO of NDF, "Knowledge is power. So, when you are equipped with first-hand knowledge, you are placed in a position of power. It's that simple."
At the completion of the twelve-hour course, you will:
1. Be informed and confident enough to take on any real estate agent, home seller, banker, broker and inspector out there, or
2. You will realize that you are not quite ready for the demands of home ownership. And that's okay.
Either way, you come out a winner.
Upon my return to New Orleans following a five-year stay in Tallahassee, Florida, my husband and I began looking for a home to purchase. We contacted real estate agent Roslyn Perkins Duplessie who immediately encouraged us to take Fred's class. "Whether you've owned a home before, qualify for grant money or not," said Ms. Duplessie "the course is filled with a wealth of information that will guide you every step of the way to home ownership."
My husband and I (Al) enrolled right away. Although we did not qualify for federal assistance, the information was priceless. Our reward for paying attention in class was the purchase of a home that is tailor-made for us, within our budget, and with a phenomenal interest rate.
Of course, it is imperative that you have a dedicated agent who has your best interest, and not just her commission, at heart. There were properties that we found online and sent to Ms. Duplessie to schedule a showing, only to have her check them out and call us to say, "No. You don't want this one. Don't be discouraged. I'm going to find you the perfect house. " And she did!
The Dynamo Behind NDF
Though he appears to be quiet and unassuming at first glance, don't let the boyish charm fool you . . . when Fred Johnson breezes into a room, all eyes remain riveted on him, and in return, his eyes seek out and quickly latch on to the student most in need of his message. His no-nonsense, in-your-face approach to teaching the ABCs of home ownership is what makes this 24-year-old program so successful.
There is no fluff and no sugar-coating. Just the hard facts delivered at a pace and in a tone that demand that you sit up and pay attention. As Fred glides back and forth across the room, his voice growing louder for emphasis as he hits on an important point, hands fly into the air with questions. He never dismisses a question as trivial, but attentively listens to each one before spewing out a litany of scenarios. With Fred, there is no simple singular response. He ensures that the students understand that in many instances, there is more than one option, thus, more than one correct answer. Presenting scenarios to the class allows students to recognize the answer that best suits his/her personal situation.
I recently returned to NDF's headquarters on South Rampart to thank Fred Johnson for the classes, and to fulfill a promise I made to myself to do a story that will, hopefully, encourage others to go after their dreams of home ownership. I guess this story is my way of giving back a little of what I gained from the class. Here are the highlights of our conversation. Enjoy!
KTA: As someone who has been through the program, let me start by saying, thank you. It was informative, enlightening, and actually, fun.
FJ: Thank you. I'm glad we were able to help.
KTA: I understand that September marks the 24th anniversary of NDF, so congratulations! In order for any company to last 24 years, it has to be doing something right . . . to what do you attribute NDFs longevity?
FJ: We offer a service that is needed. Plain and simple. We also understand that not everybody is homeownership material, but for those who are, we teach three important tools for homeownership: their rights, their responsibilities, and their privileges. You can't segregate the three. All are needed in order to make an informed decision.
I believe that every customer should be treated fairly. The day I don't treat my customers with respect is the day I should get out of the business. We work for the customer. He/she pays the salary, he/she ensures our longevity. Too often people don't realize that it's not about them. The fact is, when the customer does not come to you, no longer crosses the threshold of your door, you have a problem. Because we treat each client with respect and integrity, they in turn sell us to their friends and family.
KTA: What is the most important lesson you want the clients to take from the class?
FJ: Following the classes, a client may decide that he/she doesn't want to be a homeowner at this time. And that's okay. He/she may not be ready for the responsibility, and that's okay. But, I want him/her to walk away with the understanding of the big picture. That is, if you remain a tenant, you remain at the mercy of your landlord. If you opt to own, you can build equity, and have something to pass along to your children. That's what we try to help people to understand. That they have choices. We want them to make informed decisions based on their choices. We don't dictate what they should buy; we educate, inform, stimulate and provide insight. The ultimate decision on whether or not to purchase a home lies with the client.
KTA: What inspired you to develop a foundation to encourage home ownership?
FJ: Rudy Lombard was running for mayor, and one of his major concerns was New Orleans' housing. Well, when we pulled the data, we learned that 70% of the city's population rented, and only 30% were home owners. We discovered that 17,000 individuals were paying rents equivalent to a home mortgage! Rudy asked if I would work with him to address this imbalance. Well, I couldn't spell mortgage at the time and didn't know exactly what was needed. As we began investigating why the numbers were so lopsided, we came up with a simple explanation: lack of knowledge.
When I discovered that the word mortgage wasn't even included in the spelling bee sponsored by the Times Picayune each year, I knew there was a problem. This meant that there was nothing synonymous with home ownership being taught on any level in schools and churches. And it certainly wasn't taught in the home, because most of the homes were occupied by renters. The team looked at me, and all they could say was, "wow!" We realized that we needed to find a way to offset these numbers, and decided then and there to start a training program for those who wanted to own their own homes, but did not know where to start.
KTA: How did you come up with the 12-hour concept?
FJ: We identified what information was needed, and from there we got the curriculum together. It was always designed to be a 12-hour course, but initially it was supposed to be 3-hours, one night per week over six weeks. As things picked up, we increased the hours and held the classes over two nights. One year, we found ourselves trying to hold classes right up against Christmas. Being in the business of teaching people to reduce their debt and save, we couldn't compete with Christmas. You can't tell people to reduce their debt when everywhere they go there's someone ringing a bell, or advertisements of holiday sales. That was when the 1-week, 4-night, 3 hours per night classes evolved. We also realized that many people are coming right after work, and simply cannot remain focused beyond 3 hours.
KTA: I thought that 3 hours would be tough, but the classes were so fast-paced and interesting, that the time flew. Your guest speakers were informative and thorough. I enjoyed it.
FJ: Thank you. That's what we strive for. We try not to overload, and we want the process to be simple and to make sense to the clients. We want to make sure that they get something out of it. We understand that anything past 3 hours is too hard, and their brains shut down because they're exhausted.
For the record, we were the first program of its kind in the city and the state. This concept was ours. Others have duplicated the concept, but NDF brought the 12-hour training program to town.
KTA: How hard was it to put staff into place?
FJ: You need to understand that this foundation was built by a staff of people with little mortgage knowledge, but who understood what was needed — an education tool. Therein lies their passion for the program. The cliché says that "without an education you may as well be dead," and that's true. Life in general is not about the money, it's about knowledge. Money will come and go, but knowledge will be with you until the end because it's embedded in you.
KTA: What is your ultimate goal with the program? How do you want it to evolve?
FJ: We are working to reduce poverty in the next generation, and subsequent generations, because we believe that everyone should always strive to exceed that from which he came. Education enables that. Establishing assets ensure that. Imagine if your parents had left you a property that was paid for. Your assets would jump. You're already way ahead of the game. No house note, just maintenance, insurance and taxes of the property. You build on that and continue growing.
KTA: What is your success rate with low-income clients?
FJ: Understand that sometimes low-income people are better stewards of their money than those with larger incomes. Because they have less, they tend to be more careful about budgeting and management. They make sure they pay their monthly revolving credit card bills, rent, and utilities. They don't waste as much because they don't have as much. They have the desire, and we have the tools.
Your parents were stewards for you. Whatever we amass in this life, no matter how cute or handsome we think we are, we are all going to pass away one day. It's inevitable. Everything you amassed in your lifetime will pass to your children or other family members. Life is a relay. It's about passing. We want you to have something to pass along.
KTA: Because college students are inundated with credit card applications and student loans, what advice do you have for them to get them on the track to home ownership?
FJ: Good point. College students need to understand that they are in school for one thing — to get a good education, which will insure a decent quality of life. They need to slow down and resist the temptation to run up all that credit card debt. Also, so many of them, as soon as they get out of college and get their first job, the first thing they buy is a fancy car — before they even think about buying a house. It is important for students to learn early on that they should never accrue more credit card debt than they can afford to pay off within 30 days.
Unfortunately, like you said, many of these students are first-generation, and did not learn debt management in church, in school, or from their parents. They're enticed by the material world, and too often they succumb to it.
KTA: What can parents do to ensure that their college students resist running up debt?
FJ: Tell them to shift gears and focus. Tell them that you're happy they're in college, but don't get so caught up in the material world that they neglect the basic facts of life. Students have to focus on learning all that they need to do now to ensure their security later. Stress that they will get out of life only what they put in.
KTA: Do you offer additional training, like long-term credit counseling or budgeting?
FJ: We educate and train clients to be independent and to know that we're here to help them through financial issues and questions. But we are not a welfare agency. We can't hold their hands through life. But we do our best to empower them with the tools to stand on their own.
KTA: How many clients who have completed the program return for post training?
FJ: With all the foreclosures going through the system in recent years, we encourage post training to ensure that they are aware of the current state of affairs. We invite customers to come back, but can't force. Our goal is to make sure they're up to speed when, and if, they decide to purchase down the road. We have clients who did not purchase a home upon their first completion of the course, but came back years later.
KTA: On average, how many clients have purchased homes after completing the program?
FJ: Before Katrina, approximately 100 clients became homeowners per year.
KTA: How has the mortgage crises of the past couple of years affected you?
FJ: Last year was sluggish because of the new wave of regulations on mortgages. The foreclosure crisis was made by unscrupulous lenders who had no business financing some of these loans.
KTA: How do you prevent a client from entering into a mortgage that they clearly cannot afford to pay?
FJ: The system is being revamped. Major lenders/brokers have made loans and sold them to secondary lenders, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, who have taken losses because they took on bad loans. As a result, Congress is forcing lenders/brokers to tighten up and increase regulations. Interest only loans, and maxing people out is not happening right now.
Unfortunately, these new regulations are making it very difficult for potential home owners to qualify for first mortgages. To blame are; the first wave of foreclosures, which was caused by unscrupulous lenders/brokers, and second, because of the current downturn in the economy. These two issues caused a domino effect. Agents made loans to people who could not make the mortgage. To make matters worse, some of these same people, when the economy went south, lost their jobs. Additionally, home values dropped.
Some homeowners, after learning that their $250 thousand home is now worth only $120 thousand, decided to just walk away. One thing contributed to the other. The good thing is that because of tighter regulations, the days of walking into a lender and being maxed out are over.
KTA: How have the regulations changed, and how does that hurt the first-time home buyer?
FJ: For one thing, a potential buyer needs more money for down payment, higher credit scores and larger cash reserves than they needed a few years ago. Unfortunately, this will affect people who should not be affected. You see, all the new regulations are burdening the lenders, who then are unable to service as many loans or process as many applications. In many instances, the steps of putting a loan together have tripled. The system is now trying to check itself to stop from further wrecking itself.
KTA: At the beginning of the classes I attended, you made three brief, yet profound, statements that I carried with me during my home search. Would you elaborate on them here for our readers? They are:
1. DO NOT fall in love with the house until after the inspection. (Poor construction and other serious issues can easily be covered with paint, landscaping and carpet.)
2. Get a home inspection, a mold inspection and a home warranty. (These trained professionals inspect every system in the house including; plumbing, foundation, roof, electricity, windows, appliances that are staying, etc.)
3. DO NOT let anyone rush you. If you are not comfortable, walk away.
FJ: Thank you. Those are important. What I want clients to understand is that when they get outside the security of the training environment, everyone they deal with is on commission. This is a money-driven process. It's all about money. Now, most important, and this is what I try to convey, this is all about YOUR money. You are in charge! Everyone involved in your home buying process is working for YOUR money. Doesn't matter what the lender, seller, or agents say. They are all being paid out of your money.
Once you understand that they are on YOUR dime, you realize that you are in control. Make sure you get the best bang for your buck.
We make sure that you go into the home buying process informed. An informed consumer makes an informed decision. An ill informed consumer makes an ill informed purchase — whether it's a house or loaf of bread. The more you know, the better decisions you will make in life in general.
I want to elaborate on your 3rd statement: Don't let anybody rush you. That is the most important. You see, sometimes, we get so sophisticated and educated that we forget simple stupid things . . . stupid things are very imperative.
If someone rushes you to make a deal, follow your gut. Not your heart (#1, don't fall in love with the house), but your instinct. In most cases your gut is a response to your intelligence. In all that you do, your first mind is your right mind. How many times have you heard your mama say, "I should have followed my first mind. I don't know what I was thinking." She was right. When something is clear to you, that's the thought you stick with.
If someone pushes you, you have to back away and call timeout. You can tell them, "Step out of my space so that I can think clearly." You don't need anyone crowding your space or your thoughts while you make this important decision.
This is very important, do not let an agent tell you that you need to hurry and make an offer because "someone else wants the house." That's BS, and it's also the oldest trick in the book. Its intent is to force you to make an offer. Tell them, "So what," and take your time. Remember, when the smoke clears and the dust settles, you're stuck with your rushed decision. Don't let anybody rush you for a car, hat, dress, nothing. Take your time. When you can breathe, you can better assess what you like and don't like about the property.
KTA: What drives you to come in every day after 24 years?
FJ: The fact that there is still housing discrimination based on color, lack of education, and poorly managed financing. As long as these exist, there is a need for our program.
KTA: What do you say to the person who believes his friends who tell him that home ownership is out of his reach?
FJ: Don't believe him. I have always preached the concept of "never say never." Negativity forces you to preclude yourself. In lots of instances, the people around us behave like crabs in the hamper. Are you familiar with that saying? There are crabs all around you who, when you try to get up and out, pull you back down. You see, I'm old school. I know that misery loves company. I stay clear of negativity.
So, I say, never let somebody tell you what you can't do. Don't listen. Recognize that what you are dealing with is a person who is transferring his fears and insecurities to you. Don't let him do it. It's on you to make that life-altering move to financial security and home ownership. Give us a call.
KTA: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me today!
FJ: Thank you for sharing our story. I appreciate it.
Kathy Taylor Ancar has served as online editor and contributing writer for New Orleans-based THE BLACK COLLEGIAN Magazine for over thirteen years, and as contributing writer to The New Orleans Agenda, Louisiana Cookin' Magazine, The Louisiana Weekly, and The African-American Village. She may reached via email at: email@example.com.
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