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Berkshire County banks taking part in Lift Up Homeownership pilot program aimed at helping people of color

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This summer, local banks in Berkshire County are participating in a pilot program aimed at providing grants to people of color trying to buy their first home. Under the Lift Up Homeownership program from the Federal Home Loan Bank of Boston, county residents of color could receive up to $50,000 in down-payment and closing-cost assistance if they qualify. It comes at a time when property shortages, rising interest rates, and steep prices have exacerbated Berkshire County’s housing crisis. Regional intuitions including Greylock Federal Credit Union, Lee Bank, Pittsfield Cooperative Bank and more will take part in distributing the grants. WAMC spoke to Rich Whalen of Pittsfield Cooperative Bank.

WHALEN: It's a pilot program that's been put out by the Federal Home Loan Bank to its member banks to participate in a new program to offer closing costs and down payment assistance to persons of color that are first time homebuyers that meet income and credit guidelines that cannot make more than 120% of the [United States Department of Housing and Urban Development] area median income.

WAMC: Now, how much could folks receive from the program if they qualify for it?

The grants are up to $50,000.

And exactly how many folks would this be available to?

It’s anybody in our normal lending area that's purchasing a home. The program actually extends out through New England.

And give me a sense of the housing market from the Pittsfield Cooperative Bank’s stance- Obviously, we've heard so much about how difficult a market it is, how expensive it can be. Can you give us the bank's perspective on the current situation?

Housing in Berkshire County is in a shortage like it is nationwide. And there aren't a lot of listings, interest rates have increased recently, which has made affordability less for first time homebuyers. So, any kind of assistance they can get is a good thing.

Talk to me about the equity perspective here. What's the motivation for the [Pittsfield] Cooperative Bank to undertake this kind of program that's specifically aimed at people of color in the community?

These programs that the Federal Home Loan Bank provides, our various grant programs, and other ones we've participated in through the years as a community reinvestment tool to reach out to borrowers of low and moderate income to, again, assist them with the purchase of their first home.

What's your broader message to the community about this program? Why is it something that you encourage folks to take advantage of?

Well, I can't speak more highly of the Federal Home Loan Bank grant programs. They are excellent programs, they help people with down payment. It's very hard these days for people to save up for a down payment of even 5% or 10%. So, it's an avenue for people to get into their first home, make it more affordable. We're out there trying to assist people the best we can with various products to help people accomplish the goal of homeownership.

Let's unpack that goal a little bit from the bank's perspective. What is the pitch on why homeownership is a good investment for folks in Berkshire County in 2023?

Well, I think homeownership is most people's ultimate goal- To own their own home, to build up equity, to be a part of the community, to help the economy.

Is there anything about the Lift Up Homeownership program that I’ve not thought to ask you that you want to make sure people understand?

The timing, I guess. There’s a time issue. But they're offering a total grant of $2.5 million to people that want to purchase a home within New England. The monies do go very fast. There is a component for people, they have to go to homebuyer counseling training, which they can complete in their own homes via the internet.

Are there any programs that the Pittsfield Cooperative Bank offers that sort of serve as a complement to this kind of program? Are there existing or other programs you already have underway that sort of fit in with the Lift Up Homeownership program?

We do offer an in-house first-time homebuyers’ program, which you can put as little as 11% down. That's the program most people seem to gravitate to. It's a fixed rate, it's typically below market, fixed rate. And the other grant programs that we have participated with the Federal Home Loan Bank have fit in nicely with that program. You can get a fixed rate, you can get a 30-year term, you don't have to get things like private mortgage insurance and things like that. So, that's an additional help to monthly expense for borrowers.

Any final words on this, Rich?

They've got to have a signed purchase and sale agreement in order to reserve a grant. So, people can certainly come to us and be pre-qualified, find out how much they can afford and that kind of thing, but it's really geared towards people- Because once the money has become available on July 10th, all institutions, of course, in New England, are going to be accessing these funds. And so, like I said, it's really there for somebody who's pretty much ready to purchase and has a signed purchase and sale agreement in hand.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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