From the outside, it looked like any other house in the quiet Lynchburg neighborhood — two stories, white siding, accented with bold green shutters and a matching front door.
But Karen Morton, who opened the door Monday evening with a smile, called it a castle.
“Come on in!” she said. “Welcome to my home.”
Morton, 53, is a first-time home buyer.
A recent graduate and valedictorian of Lynchburg Community Action Group’s newly revamped first-time home buyers program, Morton clawed free from more than $4,000 in credit card debt, a lifetime of dubious spending habits and a string of rentals in only nine months.
Lyn-CAG Director of Housing Counseling Services Denise Crews can remember her first meeting with Morton in August 2018.
“She said she was tired of giving her money to someone else,” Crews said.
Though the program has been around for more than 15 years, in the last 12 months Crews has made major changes — cutting the class down from 18 months to 12, offering one-on-one counseling, bringing in real-world professionals such as real estate agents and lenders and creating a lesson plan that transports its students out of the classroom.
The free class is designed to assist low-income individuals in cleaning up credit, saving money and closing on a home. Lyn-CAG is the only U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-certified housing counseling agency in Lynchburg and the surrounding counties, Crews said.
In past years, said Crews, maybe one person out of 10 would prequalify in 18 months. In her nine years at Lyn-CAG, she can only remember two or three people closing. In the pilot run of the revamped program, two-thirds of the class closed or prequalified.
Of the 15 graduates, six individuals prequalified and four purchased homes.
Of these, Morton was the first.
She closed last May, only nine months into the program. She called stepping through the front door of her new home for the first time a miracle.
“The only thing I didn’t do is cartwheels,” Morton said. “This was the first house we came to, and it just did something. It opened my eyes. Within a week I was closing.”
A block away from the Fort Avenue Neighborhood Park, her street backs the University of Lynchburg and has a straight-shot view of the mountains. There is a yellow welcome flag fluttering from the front porch, and a backyard fringed with flowerbeds and pine and maple trees.
“If it wasn’t for Lyn-CAG, that whole organization, I’d probably still be over on Easley Avenue paying rent,” Morton said. “Lyn-CAG gave me tools and the resources to become a homeowner. And now, I’m here.”
Morton, who was paying about $675 in month to rent, is now paying $769 on her mortgage every month. And in 30 years — though Morton said she’s committed to cutting it down to 15 — the house will be hers.
Though she heeds Lyn-CAG’s advice — don’t do any major renovations for the first six months — Morton had just finished hanging curtains. Morton explained her plans for future renovations — like the smoke-gray paint she picked out for the kitchen walls, future furnishings for the upstairs bedrooms and landscaping around the back patio.
“It feels good,” Morton said. “I can just come home from a busy day’s work and sit back and look at what I’ve accomplished.”
A fellow graduate from last year’s class, Diana Brown, has worked at Lyn-CAG for almost 20 years. Even though she currently works in housing services, and had tried the home-buying programs twice before, it wasn’t until the most recent round that the classes stuck.
“This class will work for you if you work for it,” Brown said. “[Morton] was the fire that lit the match in everybody else.”
Though she hasn’t purchased yet, Brown improved her credit by “leaps and bounds,” and only owes a few hundred dollars before she can get prequalified.
“It’s not just a dream,” Brown said. “It’s a reality in progress.”
Brown said that a tight-knit program made all the difference — with counselors and classmates that cheer each other on, monthly group sessions and one-on-one counseling holding every participant accountable.
Lessons on financial management and credit card debt were the most helpful, she added — and in less than a year, Brown has paid off doctor’s bills, repossessions and expenses accrued as a single parent escaping poverty.
“I think a lot of my peers had fell into the credit card trap. But so many people ground in their heels and stopped a generational poverty action,” Brown said. “It got done, and now they’ve closed on a house.”
This year, Brown is serving the new class of the home-buyers program as a certified housing counselor.
The August orientation found 27 new students sitting in rows of plastic chairs in the Lyn-CAG office in downtown Lynchburg.
Like Brenda Kirkland, 51, who said she is anxious to get started.
“I thought I was too old for this,” Kirkland said. But looking around, Kirkland said she sees plenty of people she recognizes.
“I’m hoping they can teach me about what to look for,” Kirkland said. She is already trying to get her debt down, has paid off three credit cards and is beginning to budget. “I’m sure everybody here is here for the same thing: to try to get their affairs in order so that they can go and buy their home.”
Crews said they hope to get about $25,000 in funding from the Virginia Housing Development Authority to help qualifying clients clean up credit and reduce debt for next year’s class, helping to pay off the final barriers that stand between a client and purchasing a home.
This is crucial in Lynchburg, Crews added. With a poverty rate of 22.3% — according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey five-year estimates from 2013 to 2017 — and a lack of affordable housing, programs like this can show low-income individuals that there are ways out of poverty, avenues to build wealth, success and sustainability.
Crews, who herself went from homelessness to home ownership, said this is how the city can break the cycle.
Even though she already graduated from the program and closed on a house, Crews said Morton still visits Lyn-CAG once or twice per week to show them something new she’s decorated or just to check in.
Back at the two-story house, Morton stood in a patch of sunlight in the yard and looked up at her new home. “If I can do it,” Morton said, “everybody can do it.”
Free and open for everyone, the next class is available for registration until Thursday.