Camden, N.J., May 1, 2019 / 05:19 pm (CNA).- Affordable housing is a problem for many Americans, but for the low-income residents of Camden, a Catholic non-profit is working hard to make sure they have the budgeting skills, the life skills, and the community connections to become homeowners—and to stay that way.
“Anyone can work on converting abandoned houses. What makes us different is that we’re actually totally invested in our families,” Pilar Hogan of St. Joseph’s Carpenter Society told CNA. “We see this as a means to creating some homeownership wealth.”
“We’re really starting to see a vibrant difference in our neighborhood.”
Some potential clients aren’t where they need to be financially and need years before they can think of buying a home.
“The one thing that I always tell them is not to ever give up,” Rosie Figueroa, director of counseling at St. Joseph’s Carpenter Society, told CNA. “I always tell them ‘I will tell you when to give up’. And that doesn’t happen easy.”
St. Joseph’s Carpenter Society was begun by Monsignor Robert “Bob” McDermott, who passed away in early 2019. He grew up in East Camden in the 1940s and 1950s when it was a working-class neighborhood. He was ordained a priest for the Diocese of Camden and decades later, in 1985, returned to become pastor of his childhood home parish, St. Joseph’s Pro-Cathedral.
“When Father Bob moved back in the mid-80s, he was really struck by the dilapidation and the deterioration,” said Hogan. “Right across from the church were four or five abandoned burned-out houses.”
Hogan said the area showed “a lack of hope.” Residents who looked out their windows were only able “to see buildings crumbling.” They wouldn’t hear children playing in the streets and they wouldn’t find a safe place for families.
Camden, N.J. has a reputation for being a city that has seen better times. The city overlooks Philadelphia from the east side of the Delaware River. Its 74,000 people suffer high unemployment and high crime. In 2012 it ranked as the poorest city in the U.S.
The city is “consistently ranked as one of the poorest and actually one of the most violent cities in the U.S.,” Hogan told CNA.
Back in the 1980s, one of Father McDermott’s parishioners, a Vietnamese refugee, could not find adequate housing for his family of nine. The priest founded the St. Joseph’s Carpenter Society to respond to the family’s need—and to respond to the hardships of life in Camden. The society renovated a home for the family and used that effort as a starting point to transform the neighborhood.
Now, the organization identifies vacant and abandoned houses to renovate and sell to people who need a home – after giving careful training to low-income clients about budgeting, the homebuying process, and what it takes to be a homeowner.
“When we started working, one in every six houses was abandoned,” said Hogan. “We’re now up to 1 in 40. We’re really making a difference. We have entire blocks now that don’t have an abandoned house on it.”
The society claims success in stabilizing the East Camden neighborhood, citing low vacancy rates and high homeownerships that are both better than Camden in general, its website says.
Since Father McDermott started St. Joseph’s Carpenter Society more than three decades ago, it has graduated 3,000 people through its education program. It has helped with 450 home repairs and sold close to 1,000 homes. Once people buy, they rarely leave. Eighty-five percent of these homeowners still live in the home they bought from the non-profit.
Behind each number is a personal story.
“The exciting part is when we hand over keys to a family,” said Hogan. “A lot of them just look at us like they never felt that this was going to happen.”
Figueroa described the joy of closing day for clients: “sometimes they start crying, sometimes they run out and start screaming with their kids.”
One beneficiary family was paying very high rent–so high that when they later became homeowners, their mortgage payment was only two-thirds the cost of their previous rent payment, Hogan said.
“The conditions were so bad that a young mother and young father spent most of their day in the car. The kids did their homework in the car, the kids ate in their car,” Hogan recounted. Their vermin-infested rental apartment was in such bad shape that “they wanted to limit the time that the kids were in that environment.”
Now they have gone through the St. Joseph’s program and have a home of their own.
“She couldn’t have been more pleased with the fact that she was now controlling her life in a much better way, and the lives of her children,” Hogan added. “She was still working, like she had been before, but now the house was hers and she could keep it clean. And do everything she needed to do to keep her kids safe.”
“This woman was all smiles,” she said.
Figueroa said the mother is now back in school, which she wasn’t able to do before. The father recently received a promotion at work. Contributing to this, she said, is “the fact that now they have their home, that space for their kids, and that backyard for the kids to play in, and for them to barbeque.”
The typical client of St. Joseph’s Carpenter Society, according to Hogan, is “a hardworking, dedicated small family.” Typical household income ranges from $20,000 to $35,000 per year. Clients are mainly Latino, but many come from Camden’s African-American community or its small South Asian communities.
Figueroa said clients face housing issues and financial difficulties. Some need to learn how to save or to budget money. Sometimes their credit isn’t what it should be, or they need to learn how to apply for grants, programs and loans.
“Those are things that we help them address when they come here,” said Figueroa. “A lot of them don’t know anything about banking. We help them maintain banking accounts, a line of credit and help them use it properly.”
“We teach them about savings and the importance of long-term savings,” she added.
It’s not always easy to become a homeowner, especially in Camden.
“Sometimes the suggestions that we have for people are harder,” said Hogan. “It’s things like: you’re going to have to work on finding a better job or taking a second job.”
Other priorities for the society are teaching civic responsibility to clients. This includes caring for their new home and caring for their neighbors. They ask beneficiaries to take leadership training or neighborhood organizing, clean a park, support local organizations, and act with others “to change the entire neighborhood.”
“Camden is more than simply everyone’s perception of the city. We are changing that and we are working on that every day, which I think is reverberating throughout the city of Camden,” said Hogan, pointing to new restaurants, festivals and stores.
“It’s really a community on the rise and that’s exciting for us too.”
The St. Joseph’s Carpenter Society is affiliated with NeighborWorks America, an umbrella group with 240 similar groups nationwide.